Episode 2 - Flow, Metaphor, and the Axial Revolution


Main Sources

  • Karen Armstrong - The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions
  • Robert Bellah and Hans Joas (Editors) – The Axial Age and its Consequences
  • Eric Cline - 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
  • The Dhammapada
  • Robert Drews - The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C.
  • Robin Hogarth – Educating Intuition
  • Karl Jaspers - The Origin and Goal of Hist
  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson - Metaphors We Live By
  • Steven Pinker - The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
  • Arthur Reber - Implicit Learning and Tacit Knowledge: An Essay on the Cognitive Unconscious
  • Joseph Schear (Editor) - Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate

Key Ideas

  • Humans are able to pick up complex patterns subconsciously. We call this implicit learning.
  • The more flow you experience, the bigger the perceived meaning of your life.


Welcome back. I’m John Vervaeke and this is a video series on awakening from the meaning crisis.

So last time we were beginning our historical examination of the origin of this capacity for meaning making to try and get a clearer picture of what it is. And today I’d like to continue on with that. We were talking about the connections between meaning making, enhancing cognition, altered states of consciousness, wisdom. And we were talking about that in connection with the Upper Paleolithic transition in which human beings seem to have gone through this radical change which was not so much a biological change but a change in how they were using their cognition.

We talked about important ideas such as cognitive exaptation and psycho-technology and we talked about how the upper Paleolithic transition was probably driven by the way shamanism was a set of pscyho-technologies for altering states of consciousness to cognitively exapt the enhanced abilities that trade rituals and initiation rituals and healing rituals had already been creating.

And we talked about the way that shaman engaged in various disruptive strategies to try and alter their framing of reality because how we frame reality is both the source of our adaptivity – our ability to find patterns – but it is also how we can get locked in, or how we miss frame reality and how we are in need of insight. And then we talked about that in connection something like the nine dot problem. And that led us to realize that there’s kinds of knowing that are independent from the knowing that we capture in our statements of our beliefs. There’s knowings about knowing how to do something; what it’s like to have a particular perspective and what it’s like to know something by identifying with it and participating in it. And I was starting to show you how the Shamen’s altered state of consciousness was also enhancing and altering meaning making, affording insight and improving the ability of the shaman to help in hunting and healthcare to things that would radically improve survival. I want to continue now and talk more about that and more about what’s going on in shamanism in order to get more explication of this meaning making, wisdom, altered states of consciousness, different kinds of knowing and how they’re all interrelated together.

So typically the shaman engages in practices that are putting significant changes in their attention. As we mentioned there’s often significant disruptive strategies: sleep deprivation, sex depravation, social isolation, the use of psychedelics, extended chanting, dancing. All of these things are designed to bring about radical changes in the way in which the brain is operating. Now part of what a shaman is doing is, I would argue, also getting into the flow state.

So the flow state has become something that has been discussed both academically and in the popular culture. It was made famous in work by Csikszentmihalyi. His book “Flow. The The Psychology of Optimal experience” brought it to the forefront in 1990. So what is the flow experience? So the flow experience is experience people get into; they often describe it as like “being in the zone”. So you are involved in a task that is very demanding. In fact it has a particular structure to it. So… These are your skills presentation. And these are how demanding the situation is. And the flow state is one in which the demands of the situation just slightly go beyond your skill abilities. And so you get what’s called here Csikszentmihalyi represents this by the “flow channel”. When my skills can just through – we’ll talk about this through insight and restructuring – when I can just enough exapt and extend my skills to meet the demands – so I have to put everything I’ve got into it – then I get into the flow channel. If my skills exceed the demands, I fall into boredom. If my demands exceed the skills, I fall into anxiety.

Now of course the thing about you is you are very good at learning in situation. So you need a kind of context in which, as your skills improve, your environment also improves. So one of the things we’ve created in our culture… We have created flow induction machines because what those machines have are a situation where your skills are constantly improving and the demands of the environment are constantly improving and these flow induction machines have other properties that are very important in them. There is a very tight feedback between what you do and how the environment responds. You’re getting very clear information and failure matters. At least symbolically because you can die. And of course some of you probably realizing that I’m talking about video games.

Video games are one of the most reliable ways of inducing the flow state in people. In fact part of the reasons why video games are addictive – and they are now being considered to be a bonafide addiction by the World Health Organization – is precisely because they engender the flow state. Addictions – and we’ll talk about this later when we talk about addictions – addictions run off machinery that is evolutionarily adaptive. That’s why it’s compelling. So the flow state: what are other things that people do to get into the flow state? They play jazz. They do martial arts – I’m a martial artist! One that’s particularly interesting because there’s no other explanation for why people do it other than they get into the flow state is rock climbing because rock climbing, other wise, is like some sort of torture from Greek mythology, right? You presented it like “here’s a rock face! What I want you to do is, I want you to go up that! It’s going to be really physically demanding. It’s going to hurt you. You might fall and harm yourself. And once you get to the top you come back down!” It would seem like a tortureous thing to do. Well we know why people rock climb – they rock climb because they get into the flow state and the flow state is deeply deeply positive for people.

It’s not the same thing as physical pleasure. In fact the flow state is much more connected to meaning in life. In fact the more often you get into the flow state the more likely you will rate your your life as meaningful. The more you will experience well-being.

And what’s interesting also about the flow state. And remember we’re doing this because I’m talking about that shamanism is probably a practice for practicing getting into the flow state. So remember that. The thing about the flow state is it’s a universal. People across cultures, socioeconomic groups, genders, language, environments, age groups, report being able to get into the flow state and they describe it in detail almost exactly the same way. That’s a universal and universals are important in cognitive science. You pay attention to the universals because they give you profound insight into the machinery.

What’s it like to be in the flow state? Well when you’re in the flow state you feel like you’re deeply at one with things. So for example I’m a martial artist and when I’m sparring it’s like my sense of connectedness to my opponent is really enhanced and I’m really at one. And that comes with this kind of spontaneity. So when a strike is coming to my hand, I don’t mock instruction “raise your hand now John!”, it flows out of me – hence the word – and the block is there! The hockey player, the goalie, just puts out his hand, the gloved hand, and the puck is there. There’s this tremendous sense of “at-onement” and then closely allied to it is this: At one level you know, like the shaman dancing or chanting, that there’s tremendous metabolic energy at work. Effort! You’re making at one level all this effort but at another level it feels effortless. That’s the spontaneity. Again it just seems to flow from you. Your sense of time is passing differently. Your sense of self is being dramatically altered. So when people are in the flow state, a kind of self-consciousness disappears. That self-consciousness we carry around. That self-consciousness that’s always doing this sort of thing. It’s constantly doing our autobiography. (How’s my day going? How am I doing? Who am I? What am I doing?) And it’s also checking (how do I…?) “image management”. How do I look? What are people thinking of me? How am I doing? Am I under threat? All of that nattering – “all my feeling… Was that… I knew about it…” – and that, of course, that can get out of hand.

Like when you’re in depression you ruminate on all that stuff and it overwhelms you. But we all carry that burden around. It’s taxing. And in the flow state, it’s gone because there’s no space for all of that because you’re so engrossed in the task. The other thing about the flow state is It’s super salient. It’s like the kind of brightness and vividness you get in a videogame. The world seems more intense and people really like this experience and not only do they like it, it seems to be where they do their best work. So the flow experience is an optimal experience in two ways: Many people regard it as the best experiences they can have. But it’s also where they’re doing their very best at what they want to excel at. That’s why it’s so motivating to get into the flow state. So, why is the flow state so good? So, this year – 2013 – I published some work with Adrian Bennett and Leo Ferraro, in which we tried to argue for what the cognitive mechanisms are in the flow state. See, Csikszentmihalyi tells you the environmental conditions – what you need in order to get into the flow state – you need skills and demand to be matched. You need for there to be a very tight coupling between you and the environment like in the video game. You need very clear information – it can’t be ambiguous or vague. And failure has to matter – it has to be costly to you in some fashion. He specified all of that. He also specified the kind of training that helps enhance you, to get you into the flow state. And, think about this, think about what I said last time – and we’re gonna explore this more – training in mindfulness. The more people have training in mindfulness increases their capacity to get into the flow state. Now can we come up with a unified explanation for all of this? I think we can, both for the phenomenology – why we’re experiencing what we’re experiencing when we’re in the flow state – and why is it improving your cognition and therefore why would the shaman be enhancing their cognition by getting into something like the flow state through their ritual practices?

Okay so think about the rock climber. The rock climber is climbing. Remember we talked about how you frame and find patterns last time. Remember the 9 dot problem. These patterns aren’t just patterns in your mind they’re patterns and knowing how to make sense of things. So you’re rock climbing and if that breaks down you impass – you’re stuck. And I don’t mean just cognitively! You’re physically stuck! Now if you want to be a good rock climber, what you have to do is you have to break that framing. You have to train yourself to break the frame. Restructure, change what you’re finding relevant and salient and then change yourself to fit that. And then you refit yourself to the rock face. You refit yourself to the rock face. Then you have to do it again. And then you have to do it again and then you have to do it again.

Or the jazz musician. The jazz musician is playing. They pick up on a pattern they play with it but they can’t stay with it too long. What do they have to do? They have to shift, they have to restructure. They have to shift into a new pattern and then play with that but they can’t stay with it too long. They have to pick up on it they have to refresh again and again and again and again and again. Do see what’s going on with the rock climber, the jazz musician, the martial artist, is this idea of a cascade of insights. You’re having an insight that’s leading to another insight that’s leading to another insight. It’s priming. So, you know when you have an insight you have an “Aha!” and you get that burst of energy and it’s like a flash. That’s why we put a light bulb over somebody’s head when we want to show them having an insight. There that flash! Now imagine if I took that “AHAA” and I extended it: “AHAAAAAAAA…”! That’s the flow state. It’s an insight cascade. So the more you flow, the more you’re training your ability for insight. And direct interacting with your environment. Now the trouble of course with the video game is the environment isn’t a real world.

But in the shamans world, of course, the shaman’s flowing in the real world, the real social world. The real ecological world. But there’s something more. It’s not just an inside cascade that’s going on in flow. That in and of itself would be great. There’s something else going on. This has to do with your capacity for implicit learning. Now notice what’s happening here. Notice that, although even I’m doing the history, I’m always also doing the ‘cog-psy’ because while I’ve been emphasizing the history, the historical account, I’m starting to build what I need to give you the structural functional account. So implicit learning. This goes back to work led in the ’60s by Arthur Reeber and a whole bunch of other people. So what Robert was doing is he was really trying to understand how people learn language. What he was doing was he was generating an arbitrary set of rules – completely arbitrary just make them up on the spot set of rules – for how you can link strings of letters and/or numbers together. Like the rule might be you can’t have more than three vowels in a row or you have to have two continents and then you generate letter strings; eight or nine long.

These are so long that you can’t easily hold them in your working memory. And then this is what you do: You can generate an indefinite number – you generate a huge number of these strings and you just show them to people. Here’s one, here’s one, here’s one, here’s one, here’s one, here’s one. That’s the first part of the experiment. Then you do the second part of the experiment. Now you generate a whole bunch of strings, but two kinds. One set of strings is generated by that artificial set of rules and so follows the same rules as the first set. And then the second set is generated by completely different set of rules.

And what you do is you mix up the first and the second together. And this is the task you give people. Can you tell me the strings that belong with strings you saw before? Now we originally thought what would happen is people would pshhhh?? shrugs unknowingly. Because it seems so random. What he found was people score well well above chance consistently on this. People can tell you. “Oh no. Those strings. Yeah those belong with though the old ones. No, that one doesn’t, that one does that one does.” Now here’s what’s interesting. You now ask people “why?” “How do you know that?” And they’ll give you one of two answers. They’ll say “I don’t know. I don’t know! I just I just ‘feel’ it!” Which is woooooooo. makes spooky sound and gesture. Or they say, they give you some explanation, they’ll give you some rule or procedure. They’re using – and here’s what we know – they’re deceiving themselves or lying to you because that rule that they’re using wouldn’t actually predict their success.

So you are picking up… you have this tremendous capacity outside your conscious awareness – to pick up on very complex patterns in your environment. You say “OK, why? What does this have to do with shamanism?” Well hang on, because we talked about the shaman picking up on patterns last time. Let’s go back to this. Let me talk about an experiment that’s really interesting. So there was some work done on this idea. That people have psychic abilities and there’s this ‘feeling’ of being stared; at the people can tell when they’re being stared at and people reliably report that they think “Oh I knew somebody was staring I could just feel it in the back of my neck”. And so they ran an experiment in which they did the following: they’d have somebody in a room, blindfolded ear-plugged. They can’t sense anything. Nobody’s allowed to wear perfumes or anything. That person can’t see or hear or feel and they’re just standing in the room. Unbeknownst to that person people would come in and stare at them and then the person at the center of the room had report if they were being stared at or not. And people were reporting this well above chance. They were saying “I think I’m being stared at!” and there was somebody there. And of course first of all it’s woooooooo. makes spooky sound and gesture again.

But then it turned out that if you made a slight change to that experiment it wouldn’t replicate. So what was going on? You bring people into the room and they say “I think I’m being stared at.” and the researchers would tell them if they were correct or not. They would say “you’re right” or “you’re wrong”. So what you say, so what. Well here’s the thing: the researchers thought they were introducing people to viewers into the room randomly. But it turns out they weren’t introducing them randomly because you know what’s very hard for you to do? Random stuff! They were actually introducing people as viewers in a complex pattern. And the person that was blindfolded and earplugged was implicitly learning the pattern because they were getting feedback. If you take the feedback away – if you don’t tell them whenever they say I’m being stared at or not, if you don’t tell them either that they’re either right or wrong, their performance drops to chance. See, a lot of what looks like psychic abilities are your ability to pick up implicitly on complex patterns in the environment without being aware of it. Hogarth, in his book on “educating intuition“, makes a really, really cool claim; makes a very good argument in fact I think for this. He says that what we call intuition is a real thing but there isn’t anything magical about it, in the way the psychics say, your intuition is the result of your implicit learning.

You pick up on all kinds of complex patterns not knowing how you have done that but you get an ability to detect patterns and you don’t know how. That’s why your intuition feels the way it does: you just sort of know. You know things! You’re doing it all the time! To use a famous example from Dreyfus, you know how far to stand from somebody and what angle to stand – where you should stand how close you should stand what angle you should stand how as the conversation or the context changes you’re allowed to move closer or farther away what angles you’re allowed to be at. But if I were to ask you to tell me how you do that you wouldn’t know! You would just say “I know how to do it”. And yet when people don’t know how to do it it creeps you out. It creeps you out!

So intuition. Hogarth points out – and this is something very common – Hogarth points out that we have two different terms and we don’t realize we’re talking about the same thing. We have intuition when we think it’s going well – that Implicit learning. But we also have bias. And prejudice for when we think that implicit learning goes bad. The biggot has got intuitions about races that are wrong. Now how is it that implicit learning goes wrong? Well here’s the thing. You have some complex pattern in the environment and your implicit learning picks up on it. The problem is that there’s two kinds of patterns in your environment. There’s correlations. There’s correlation patterns and causal patterns. So what do I mean by that? Correlations is whan any two things are related to each other. So let me give you an example of a couple of correlations that you shouldn’t confuse with causation. There is a correlation between how large your wedding is and how long your marriage will last. You have a bigger wedding; your marriage will last longer. Now you would be a fool to therefore think you should have the biggest possible wedding because the reason why bigger weddings predict longer marriages is not because bigger weddings cause longer marriages. It’s because they’re only correlated. It’s because bigger weddings reflect a bigger social network more financial resources and having a bigger social network for the couple having more financial resources actually does cause a marriage to last longer.

Here’s another one. So I’m old enough and I was brought up in a religious household when prayer was taken out of the schools and of course people were very upset about that. You’re taking a look at “crime is going up as we’ve taken prayer out of the schools” and things like that. By the way crime hasn’t been going up. Read some of Stephen Pinker’s work. But let’s say it was. That’s only a correlation because here’s another correlation: We know that greenhouse gases have been going up steadily and that’s part of the environmental crisis we’re going to talk about. You know what has been also consistently going down for the exact same time period? Caribbean piracy! Having pirates in the Caribbean and wooden ships with cannons and stuff. As that went down, greenhouse gases went up. Now I hope none of you think that we could solve global warming by bringing back piracy.

So there are many things, there are many patterns in the world that are illusory because they’re only correlational. They’re not causal. See the biggot has picked up on correlational patterns, not causal patterns. So what you want to do is you want to train your implicit learning to pick up on the causal patterns that are real rather than the correlational patterns that are illusory. Now here’s what you can’t do. You can’t tell people to look for patterns explicitly. Go back to Reeber’s experiment. If you put people into that experiment where they’re looking at the letter strings and you tell them explicitly what they’re supposed to do – try and figure out the rules! Consciously deliberately try to figure out the rules! – their performance doesn’t get better it gets worse.

And Hogarth notes this in his book on “Educating Intuition“. We can’t replace implicit learning with explicit learning because it is precisely by being implicit that it works so well. What can we do explicitly then? What we can do is set up the right context, the right environmental factors. So that my implicit learning machine will tend more likely to get onto causal patterns rather than corrolational patterns. So I’ll get good intuition rather than bad intuition. How do you do that? Well Hogarth says the way you would do this is the way you do science. You want to control the context. Because what science is, science is a way of distinguishing causal patterns from correlational patterns. You set up an environmental situation so that you can distinguish the causal patterns from the correlational patterns.

What do you do? Well in an experiment first of all I make sure that everything is very clearly measured. I get very clear information. Very clear information. I make sure I’m looking to see that the change in one variable is closely followed by a change in another variable. So I change your drug dosage till your symptoms get better. So I look for clear information. I look for clear feedback. And in science failure matters. You test a hypothesis. And this confirmation has to be possible. Failure matters. Now notice this. What Hogarth says is “Well what I want to do is I want to put you into an implicit learning situation where you get clear feedback like you do in science where there is a tight coupling between what you do and how the environment responds and where error really matters.” Like in science. And he says “what we should do is we should try and do implicit learning in those kinds of contexts.”

Well here’s what myself and my colleagues argued: those three criteria that will turn your intuition into good implicit learning are exactly the conditions for flow. Clear information. Tightly coupled feedback. And error matters.

The rock climber is looking for/ needs clear information, tightly coupled feedback and error really matters. That context really means that there’s a much greater chance that their implicit learning machinery is gonna pick up on causal patterns rather than correlational ones.

So. Notice what we’ve got going on here. The shaman is getting into the flow state; is developing all these techniques for getting into this deeply immersive, comprehensive, flow state and they’re getting an insight cascade. And they’re also getting enhanced implicit learning picking up on very complex real, complex patterns. Now this is intuitive. They don’t know how they’re doing it.

Now here’s what’s interesting too. These two are reinforcing each other because the insight gets your cognition to explore for new patterns and then the implicit learning picks up those new patters and then those new patterns enhance your ability to restructure. And then you keep exploring for new patterns acquiring the new patterns of implicit learning and you keep ratcheting your skills up. Getting into the flow state is deeply deeply enhancing of your cognition. Somebody who’s an expert at getting into the flow state is going to be an individual you want to have around. Now that individual is going to have some really serious challenges facing them. They don’t know how they’re getting a lot of the information they’re getting. They don’t know why they’re so insightful! They’re experiencing this radical “at-onement” (oneness) with the world; this loss of sense of self when they’re enacting the animal. You have to understand these insights aren’t verbal insights! Like in the 9 dot problem, it’s not words, not beliefs getting an insight in how the deer moves! It’s getting an insight an intuitive insight in how to talk to this person to trigger the placebo effect to help them to heal right now.

So getting into the flow state: Notice what’s going on here. Notice you’re getting something that’s almost like a mystical experience. It’s a powerful, altered state of consciousness. It’s enhancing your cognitive processing. And the shaman is making meaning. They’re singing ,they’re dancing they’re telling stories they’re altering people’s sense of what matters they’re altering people’s sense of identity. They’re healing and transforming people.

What does that mean? Why would that have powered the Upper Paleolithic transition? Well first of all this is enhancing your cognition. But – and this goes towards the work of Michael Winkelman and also Matt Rossano – what’s happening in this state is your brain is learning to get areas to talk to each other that normally don’t talk to each other. This is especially the case if you’ve gone through a massive disruption strategy – fasting, social isolation, taking psychedelics – because if you look at a brain scan of somebody who’s having a psychedelic experience, areas of the brain that do not normally talk to each other are talking to each other now.

Now if I were just to do that to you, if I was just to get areas to talk to each other, you’d experience that as just noise. But if you’ve got enhanced insight and enhanced intuition, those areas are now talking to each other and you can bridge between them. You can connect them. And now this is an ability that you take for granted. You think it is just a normal part of your cognition. This is your capacity for metaphor. The word metaphor is itself a metaphor. It means to bridge, to carry over, to connect things that are normally not connected. And what you need to understand is how pervasive metaphor is. I showed you a little bit last time – the idea of a project. But I want you to reflect now – And notice the word reflect as a metaphor – On how your thought and language is filled with metaphor – by the way, that was a metaphor! I’ll say for example “do you see what I’m saying?”, “Do you get my point?” “Do you comprehend it?” “Can you grasp it?” “Do you understand it?” These are all metaphors!

How about “halfway through” this talk. I hope it’s not “too hard” for you. Do you see? It’s pervasive and profound – all of your cognition. This is work done by Lakoff and others. I have some criticisms of some of their theory but the idea that your cognition is filled and functions through metaphorical enhancement… that’s just I think the case. Now why is metaphor so powerful? Because metaphor is how you make creative connections between ideas. Metaphorical cognition is at the heart of both science and art. When the shamans are enhancing this machinery they’re connecting areas of the brain that normally do not talk to each other and affording a massive enhancement in metaphor. One of the ways in which your cognition and meaning and altered states of consciousness come together is in how your mind, your embodied mind, is generating metaphor in order to make insightful connections. There’s a deep connection between how insightful, how good a problem solver you are and your capacity for metaphorical thought. That’s why when somebody is facing a problem and they need to restructure how they think about it we tell them to use an analogy to think of a metaphor. So, this is the point: the shaman is developing psycho-technologies for altering the state of consciousness to get into the flow state and that flow state is already making them more insightful and more intuitively powerful. But it is also making them generators of metaphor. They’re literally providing people with the forms of thought that will allow them to connect ideas such that making inscriptions on a piece of bone can track the moon. Carving this figurine can connect me to ideas of fertility.

So, we’re seeing a lot of the themes that we’re going to develop coming to the fore here. How much the shaman is weaving together, enhancing cognition, altered states of consciousness and improving our capacity for making sense of the world. Literally making more meaning.

If you are a hunter/gatherer group and you have a shaman, you’re going to outcompete groups that don’t. There’s a reason why it’s universal. There’s a reason why the flow phenomena is universal. Because this exapts some of our most basic machinery and enhances it in a powerful way. The shamans have a very interesting kind of experience. They go through this transformation. They often experience what’s called “Soul flight” as if they’ve gone to another world and they’re flying through it. This is the origin – think of how we’ve come to this – but this is the origin of “getting high”. In the shaman, does this…. The shaman experiences themselves as if they’re flying above the world. Why? Why would the brain generate that? Well think about this. The shaman is getting a much more comprehensive grasp of more complex patterns. But they’re experiencing it mostly intuitively and metaphorically. Where are you when you get a bigger picture of things? You’re above them.

How do we often explain this even to ourselves metaphorically? You say you have “oversight”. Somebody who is in charge of things has “oversight” of them or has “super-vision” of them. Do you see that? Those are metaphors. Those are metaphors that are little whispers little echoes of shamanic flight. Flying over things. Getting an intuitive, insightful grasp that is expressed metaphorically of a deeper connection to the world.

We’re gonna pick up on all of these themes as we investigate more of the machinery of meaning making. They need to move forward now. So I want to talk about another revolution. This was the Upper Paleolithic transition. This is where the meaning making machinery, the altered altering consciousness, the self transcending, the flying above, the cultivation of wisdom associated with a lot of things that we consider spiritual and religious. You see them all together. That’s the Upper Paleolithic transition. Now there’s another important revolution that takes place around 10000 BCE. That’s the Neolithic revolution. You get the invention of agriculture. Now agriculture is important because it adds to this machinery in an important way because now individuals are part of complex societies and for the first time, because of agriculture, people start to stay in one place for significant amounts of time. So their relationship to the environment, to each other because they’re living with large groups of strangers now, and to themselves radically changes.

That goes through a very long period of development. This world then becomes the ancient world as stone gives way to metal and we get the Bronze Age. The period of the first great civilizations in Mesopotamia, in Egypt and there’s a transformation that’s happened in the way people are experiencing their world. Human beings are still doing everything we’ve been talking about. They still have rituals – of course they’ve developed them into very sophisticated, complex systems. They’re still engaging in altered states of consciousness and that world is pervasive for a very long time. But our connection to it is very odd! If I were to ask you if you’ve read anything from the bronze age, chances are you haven’t! Have you read the Epic of Gilgamesh? No, probably not. Have you read any Egyptian mythology? Probably not. Why the Sumerian, Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations are titanically important? Long lasting? But notice if I ask you if you’ve read parts of the Bible, or perhaps Plato, or perhaps some of the Buddha. Or Confucius. Chances are you you have read some of that. You somehow feel that those people are relevant to you in a way that people from the Bronze Age aren’t! Now why? There seems to have been another great change comparable to the change of the Upper Paleolithic transition.

Again whether it’s a one shot or more of a continuum… Again I don’t need to decide that, and I’m not confident that the debates around that are actually very fruitful. But Karl Jaspers talked about the “Axial Age”. Karen Armstrong has made famous “that” in a recent book. So around 800 BCE to around 300 B.C. there’s this great change such that you will read, connect to, find relevant authors, systems of thought, ways of being from that time period. And yet back here – where the Bronze Age ends – you don’t read this stuff. In fact – or at least most of you don’t – you don’t find it relevant. You don’t identify with it. Something happened here that is formative of us. Just like the Upper Paleolithic transition was formative of us as human beings, the Axial Age is formative of us as Western civilization. Or at least world civilization, because not just in the West that the Axial Revolution occurs. It also occurs in India and China.

Now, what happened? Why this change? Well there’s a bunch of stuff that happens; we don’t quite know. There’s a lot of discussion about it but we know! The Bronze Age collapses. There’s some good books about this. A Book by Drews. There’s a book by Klein 1177 B.C. Different discussions about why it collapsed – was it a change in chariot warfare? Is it general systems failure? Is a combination of changing military technology? Don’t know! Doesn’t matter for our purposes. What we know is that it’s a collapse. Now you need to grasp the gravity of this collapse.

This is the greatest collapse in civilization the world has ever known. The fall of the Roman Empire is nowhere near as devastating as this. More cities go out of existence at this time – the Bronze Age collapse – than any other time in recorded history. More cultures disappear. Greatest loss of literacy. Greatest collapse of trade. This is the closest thing the world has actually experienced to apocalypse. The end of the world. What happens here is a dark age. So before this you have the Egyptian Empire, these titanic dinosaur empires, huge and powerful. Lasting for centuries. Cultures the last millennia and then they disappear. And what you would find is something like when the dinosaurs went extinct. When the dinosaurs went extinct the little mammals that had been scurrying about, they start to evolve. What you have once these dinosaur empires past out of existence in the dark age is you have a lot of little small scale societies. People barely hanging on. A Very tough time. Another time in which there’s a demand made on cognition to adapt. Remember the bottleneck in Africa preceding the Upper Paleolithic transition. Here’s another bottleneck kind of event. So people are more willing to experiment. To try new things than they have before in the past. They’re willing to try new forms of social organization.

But importantly they start to invent new things and they start to invent new psycho-technologies. Remember the last time we talked about what a psycho-technology is. It’s a standardized way of doing information processing that improves and enhances your cognition by linking brains together. Your brain to your own future states of your brain. Your brain to other people’s brains. Something happens here in one of the areas that was hit hardest by the Bronze Age collapse. The area Palestine. Palestine and what’s modern Israel, Jordan, places like that. It used to be the old… referred to as the land of Canaan. What seems to be invented here is a new kind of literacy. Remember we talked about literacy as a powerful psycho-technology. Now the Bronze Age world had literacy. The Egyptians had hieroglyphics famously. The Sumerians had cuneiform. Now the thing about those forms of literacy is they’re very difficult to learn. You’ve to go to school for very very long time. And your job… You can have this job in the ancient world. This was your job – to be literate. It’s called being a scribe. It’s where we get words like scribble from. Your entire job was you were literate because it was a tough thing to be literate and it was a very valuable thing and it was a rare thing because literacy was hard. When it’s ideoographic. I have some ideograms tattooed here. This means meditate. What gets invented here is alphabetic literacy. It seems to be invented in Kanan and then it’s taken up by the Phoenicians and then they take it to the Greeks and then the Canaanite alphabet merges imperceptibly into archaic Hebrew and then gets taken into Hebrew. That’s going to be important. These two groups of people are going to be very important.

Now why is alphabetic literacy so powerful? It’s much more learnable. It’s a more effective and efficient Psycho-technology. Remember when I said last time how much literacy enhances your cognition. If I give you alphabetic literacy you can learn it much more powerfully and more people can learn it. So your ability to learn and access and share with others the benefits of literacy gets magnified tremendously. So the number of people that can be literate expands. Now, literacy does something very, very important. Really, really interesting and its effect on your sense of self and your sense of cognition. As I noted before when I can write things down I can come back to my thoughts later and I can reflect on them. I start to become more aware of my own thoughts and noticed something else I can do: I can correct my thinking more readily because I don’t have to rely on it being held in my mind. I can put it, I can externalize it, I can put it out there, I can reflect on it, I can correct it. I can store it independent of my memory.

So I start to get a capacity for what Robert Bellah calls “second order thinking”. Now, we all have metacognition – we’ll talk about this later – metacognition is your awareness of your own mind. I can ask you right now “what are you thinking” you can come become aware of it. “Do you have a good memory? Yes or no?” You’ll say “I do or I don’t”. That’s meta cognition. It’s your knowledge and awareness of your own mind. We all have metacognition. But one of the things you can do with literacy – alphabetic literacy – is you can internalize literacy into your metacognition. So, notice I’m becoming aware of my own cognition here. I can reflect on it. I can correct it. I can enhance it. I can store it. I can share it with others. Second order thinking is when you internalize a psycho-technology into your metacognition and it improves your capacity to critically examine your own thinking and correct your own thinking. Second order thinking starts to emerge because of alphabetic literacy.

What else is being invented at this time? Well, you’ve got lots of armies moving around in this period because what’s happening is empires are being rebuilt. Famously the Assyrian empire in the Middle East. Mobile armies are needed and so there is an invention here that’s really important that we also take for granted. It’s the stuff we carry around – well we used to carry around we don’t carry around anymore; we’ll talk about that – It’s money! Coinage! Coinage is invented. Now coinage is obviously a physical technology. In one sense I carry coins around – although the sense in which money is now physical is very, very tenuous because most of us don’t carry anything physical anymore – money is just a purely symbolic thing. And that’s the point. Money teaches you to think in an abstract symbol system. You start thinking in abstract symbol systems and it also teaches you something else. Numeracy. You have to start thinking mathematically. At least arithmetically. So you now have abstract symbolic, logically rigorous thought being trained. It’s being trained for practical purposes but is being trained. It’s ready for exaptation. The alphabetic literacy is training this second order thinking. It’s ready for exaptation. You say “OK, I get it! The psycho-technologies are training skills that are ready for exaptation!”. Well, bring that second order thinking and bring that abstract symbolic thought – more logically rigorous together – and what are you going to start getting. You’re going to start getting people having a very clear sense of two things about their cognition.

One thing is how much they can correct their cognition. How much they can transcend themselves; self transcendence. It enhances their sense of self transcendence. But what’s it also doing? It’s also enhancing their awareness of how self deceptive they are. How much error is in their cognition and they previously couldn’t be aware of it but now with second order thinking with literacy an abstract symbolic thought and numeracy they can become aware of this. They put those two together: a tremendous capacity for self correction and tremendous capacity for self-deception. And Human Beings start to do something very differently. They start to change their sense of self and their sense of the world. They start to realize a more personal sense of responsibility which of course is going to change how people think morally about themselves.

What do I mean? Let me give you a specific example. If you look before this time, people think of chaos and warfare and violence as just part of the natural order. But after the Axial revolution with the advent of second order thinking with this increased awareness of self transcendence and self correction people start to realize “no no no!”, we’re responsible for the violence. We’re responsible for the chaos. Not just in some vague sense but it’s the way my mind makes meaning. That’s why the Dhammapada begins “The Mind is the chief thing.” People understand that – you see this in the Dhammapada – there is no enemy greater than your own mind. But there is no ally greater than your own mind. People start understanding this double edged sword of their own cognition. Undisciplined leads to violence through self-deception and illusion. But discipline, through self correction, and self transcendence leads to wisdom and the ability to reduce the violence and the suffering.

So in our next meeting together we’re going to talk more about this actual revolution and this sense that people had of their capacity for self transcendence and their capacity for self-deception and how that changed, radically, their sense of self and their sense of the world. And how that changed what meaning meant and what wisdom meant. Thank you for your time.