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Awakening From The Meaning Crisis: Episode 1

Updated: May 1, 2021

In this blog post I will cover the first episode of his series Ep. 1 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Introduction.

According to a BBC report, we are going through a mental health crisis --- suicides are spiking, there’s a rise in depression, loneliness and anxiety, and there seems to be a general loss of faith in political, judicial and religious institutions. The rise in our dependence on social media also seems to be contributing to the adverse effects these have on our mental health.

On the other hand, this loss of meaning has sparked curiosity. People are becoming deeply interested in wisdom, mindfulness, and shamanism. There are connections being made between cognitive science and Buddhism that are sparking interest globally.

The purpose of Professor Vervaeke’s series is to combine the historical and the structural-functional account of ‘meaning,’ and produce a scientific, cognitive, and existential account of the meaning crisis, as well as discuss what we can do about it.

So where do we begin?

Art from the upper paleolithic period

Well, let’s take a look at the Upper Paleolithic Period. During this period, Homo Sapiens started to do a lot of things that they had never done before --- they started making representational art, sculptures, cave paintings and music. They also started keeping track of time across abstract patterns so that they could enhance their hunting abilities. They even started creating newer types of hunting weapons. Whereas the Neanderthals developed and used thrusting tools that were thick-shafted and heavy-stoned, Homo Sapiens started to develop very thin spears with bone, which were lighter than stone, but harder to use. These tools were great for spear-throwing, carrying multiple missiles and projecting them at long distances.

So what’s going on? Why is all of this exploding at this time?

A correlation has been found between human innovation during this time period and development of the frontal lobe area --- which is important for enhancing intelligence. It seems that with an increase in this brain area, there was also an ‘explosion’ in creativity, intelligence, and innovation. Humans weren’t just trying to survive anymore, but instead were using artistic expression to create meaningful experiences. Time and space were also given more meaning at this time, through the invention of a calendar.

Another example of innovation and meaning comes from before the Upper Paleolithic Period, when human beings went through a period of near extinction. In response to the tremendous pressure being put on their existence, Homo Sapiens came up with a socio-cognitive solution. They started creating broader trading networks, thereby removing the constraints that come with individual environmental variation. This allowed for Homo Sapiens to access more resources and it expanded the scale at which human cognition was operating in a significant way.

How were trading relationships formed?

Trading relationships involve interactions with complete strangers, totally outside one's kin group. So, in order to cultivate these trading relationships, human beings had to develop things that we see now as pervasive --- rituals. Take a handshake for example. It was made for sociocultural purposes to assure the other person that there were no weapons involved, and to allow the other person to feel how tense someone was. These trade rituals, although useful, brought about a new threat to one’s own kinship group. There had to be ways to prove that one’s commitment and loyalty to their own group superseded their commitment to the trading group. And so, initiation rituals were born -- rituals that are designed to show our commitment to our kin. Those rituals often require risk, threat and sacrifice. Although these rituals have been tamed down today, they were initially quite traumatic. People were put into a situation where they would experience lots of pain or fear. The rituals were formed and practiced so that people could prove the extent of their commitment. In a cognitive sense, this means they had to start improving their ability to have a non-egocentric perspective, to be able to de-center from the self.

Psycho-technologies and Shamanic Rituals

In order to better understand this, we have to introduce a concept called exaptation. In biological terms, exaptation refers to an evolutionary mechanism. For example, although we use our tongue to speak, its original purpose was for poison detection. It was only later exapted to be used for speech.

Michael Anderson and others argue that very often this is what the brain does --- the brain develops a set of cognitive processes for doing one thing and then uses it for something completely different. Which brings us to the concept of psychotechnology. A psychotechnology is a socially created form of information-processing that is designed to ‘fit’ our cognition and enhance its performance. It is basically a social tool (take literacy, for example) that improves our cognitive performance in some fashion. And so what happened is that the enhanced cognitive abilities that came from the trading and initiation rituals seemed to help form Shamanic rituals. Shamanism is a set of psycho-technologies that can be used to alter our state of consciousness and enhance our cognition. Shamans try to get into a certain mental state. They often engage in things like sleep deprivation, long intense periods of singing, dancing, chanting, imitation and isolation. Shamans also sometimes make use of psychedelics to help them get into this altered state of consciousness.

These disruptive strategies to alter one’s framing of reality are important because we have to be able to disrupt the usual way in which we frame things in order to get an insight. While the way in which we frame things is adaptive, it is also deceptive. Take for example the 9 dot problem.

The problem is to connect the dots with only 4 straight lines without lifting your hand from the paper.

In order to solve the 9 dot problem one has to literally ‘think outside the box.’ What’s interesting is that simply telling participants to ‘think outside the box’ does not help them solve the problem. It’s about knowing how to go outside the box, not knowing we can.

This is why Shamanistic practices are important. In Shamanism they engage in ways of knowing that involve embodying animals and archetypal figures and altering their mental states (via sleep deprivation, periods of isolation etc). We have lost these forms of knowing in our mainstream culture, which is why, in a general sense, we have become so obsessed with belief systems and ideologies. We have forgotten what it means to know from a participatory or experiential sense. Reading about how to catch a baseball is not the same as knowing how to actually catch it. Reading about a relationship is not the same as actually being in one. Shamanistic practices may help disrupt our normal patterns of thinking and framing things, get us closer to these lost ways of knowing, and in doing so, afford us better insight and mindsight. Shamans could essentially help us enhance our capacity for cognition.

A Group Of Shamans

Professor Vervaeke talks more about Shamanism, how they enhance cognition, and how and why this plays a role in meaning making, in his next lecture. He makes connections between meaning making, altered states of consciousness, and an enhanced capacity to be in touch with the world and wisdom.

What are your thoughts about the meaning crisis? Do you feel like you’ve been through one or are going through one? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. If you know someone who would be interested in this blog series, please share this link with them.

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