Ep. 2 Part 1: Flow, Intuition, Implicit Learning and Metaphorical Cognition

Updated: May 1, 2021

This and the following post are based on Episode Two of Professor Vervaeke's Awakening From The Meaning Crisis.


In the previous post, we looked at how the Shaman engages in activities (self isolation, enacting, psychedelics, sleep deprivation, extended chanting, dancing) that put significant changes on their attention and make radical changes in the way the brain is operating. Part of what the Shaman does during these activities involves accessing the flow state, a concept made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


So what is the flow experience?


It’s the state we’re in when we’re working on something and we’re ‘in the zone.’ It’s when we’re doing a task that involves just enough challenge relative to our skill-set so that we are fully present and engaged in the task. If there isn’t enough challenge, we’d experience boredom and with too much challenge, we’d get anxious. Flow is the sweet spot.


Video games have mastered this balance, which is why they are so addictive. This is the ‘darker’ side of a flow state because although it could feel like a meaningful and fruitful experience --- it’s all virtual, the environment is not ‘real.’


People seek flow in all sorts of activities. Think of rock climbing. You’re essentially just climbing up and down a piece of rock. It takes strength, effort and is often painful. But it is also often a gateway to experiences of flow. It’s a state beyond physical pleasure, one that feels deeply meaningful in an embodied sense. In fact studies show that the more flow states you experience, the more likely you are to rate your life as more meaningful.


You also feel ‘at one’ with what you’re doing. There is spontaneity. You feel as if actions, and movements, although complex, are just ‘flowing’ out of you --- at one level Shamans are using up a lot of metabolic energy when they dance and yet at another level it is seemingly effortless. Your sense of self is also altered --- you’re not self conscious anymore. You lose that aspect of ‘How do I look when I’m doing this? And what do they think?’ There’s no space for that in the flow state. You are way too engrossed in the task to be concerned about anything else. It is both, where you have your best experience of doing the task and where you are the best at doing the task.


Csikszentmihalyi specified that in order for it to be considered a flow state there should be:-


  1. A ‘match’ between skills and demand so that you’re not bored but not anxious either, you have to be appropriately challenged

  2. Clear information from your environment

  3. a tightly coupled’ feedback loop at play so that you understand your actions relative to your environment

  4. Failure that is costly in some fashion


He also indicated that the more training people have in mindfulness, the more likely they are to get into the flow state.


How does the flow state enhance one’s cognition?


Think of the rock climber. As she climbs, she pays attention to and uses patterns in the environment that help her successfully climb the rock. She restructures what she finds relevant and adjusts and ‘fixes’ herself on the rock accordingly. This pattern of constantly picking up on new patterns and adjusting to them means the climber is having a ‘cascade of insights'. As she has one insight, it primes the next one and it ‘flows’.


What does this indicate?


The cognitive mechanisms that are used during a flow state are also the mechanisms that train your ability to gain insight. As we increase our experiences of flow, we strengthen our ability to gain insight.


Flow experiences also enhance our capacity for implicit learning.


To understand this, consider Reber et al.'s experiment. Their aim was to understand how people learn languages. He generated a set of arbitrary rules for how you can string letters together (example - you can't have more than three vowels, you can only have two consonants). The strings of letters were then generated according to these arbitrary rules and presented to the participants.



In the second part of the experiment he generated two kinds of strings. The first kind were generated according to the same artificial set of rules created in the first part of the experiment. The second kind was generated by a completely new, different set of (arbitrary) rules. The two kinds of sets were then mixed and presented to the participants with the question 'can you tell me the strings that are like the ones you saw before?’



People in general were able to tell which strings belonged to the original set shown in part one. However when asked how they knew, the experiments found two general responses. Some said ‘I don’t know...I just feel it’ and others claimed to have used a strategy, when in actuality their supposed strategy did not predict their success at all. In other words, they didn’t know either.


The point here is we have this ability outside our conscious awareness that helps us pick up on complex patterns in the environment.


Here’s another experiment that exemplifies this.

In general people claim they can just ‘feel’ when they are being stared at.



In order to test this, participants were brought into a room, blindfolded, earplug, no one was allowed to wear a scent, and the participant could not touch anything. Individuals then came in one by one and either stared at the participant or looked elsewhere. The participant then reported what they ‘felt’ was happening (whether they could ‘feel’ the stare or not) to the experimenter in the room. The experimenter informed them whether they had guessed right or wrong, and called in the next individual in the room.


The experimenters initially found that the participants' reports were well above chance --- when they were being stared at, more often than not, they did 'feel it.'

However, they later realized that the participants were implicitly picking up on a pattern they were themselves not aware they were using. The experiments originally thought that they were introducing the individuals in the room at random. However they were actually using a complex pattern that the participant was picking up on through the experimenter’s feedback (when the experimenter indicated whether the participant was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’). When the experimenter stopped telling them whether they were right or wrong, the participants' performances dropped back to chance.


The point here is that a lot of the times what might look like a psychic ability is actually an ability to pick up on complex patterns in the environment without being aware of how you’re doing it (that’s why you just ‘feel’ it).


Robert Hogarth in his book on Educating Intuition argues that intuition is a real thing and there is nothing magical about it. That gut feeling we get is actually the result of implicit learning. He also proposes that although intuition in most cases is helpful, there is also ‘bad’ intuition aka bias and prejudice. The bigot, for example, has intuitions about races that are wrong.


Good And Bad Intuition -- How does a bigot develop prejudices?


Intuition is related to how we pick up complex patterns in the environment. But there's two kinds of patterns in the environment --- correlations and causation. A correlation is when two things are related to each other. For example, there is a correlation between how big a wedding is and how long that marriage will last. But that does not mean that if someone has a bigger wedding their marriage will last longer. The reason why bigger weddings reflect longer marriages is not because bigger weddings cause longer marriage. It is because bigger weddings reflect a larger social network and financial stability which actually do help a marriage last longer. A bigot picks up on correlational patterns (as causative ones), which deceive him into forming negative beliefs about certain groups and form a foundation for discrimination.


So we have to be able to train implicit learning so that it focuses on real, causational patterns rather than cor-relational patterns that are illusory.


How do we do this?



What does not work is explicitly telling people to look for these patterns. In Reber’s experiment telling them to deliberately figure out the rules actually worsened their performance. We cannot replace implicit learning with explicit learning because it is precisely that it is implicit, that it works so well.


However we can set up the right context aka the right environmental factors so that our implicit machinery can focus on causal patterns rather than the correlational patterns. Hogarth proposes that the environment be organised in the same way we find new patterns in Science --- through an experimental set up. An experiment requires there to be clear information, the scientist has to track how the change in one variable is followed by the other, and dis-confirmation of the hypothesis has to be possible. In other words we need clear information and clear feedback, and failure matters.


Thus, just as in an experiment, Hogarth proposes that in order to effectively train our implicit learning, we should be in a situation where we get clear information, tightly coupled feedback, and where error really matters.


Do these three criteria (clear information, tightly coupled feedback, and the significance of failure) sound familiar?


Vervaeke’s argument is that these three criteria that turn your intuition into good implicit learning are the exact conditions for flow. The rock climber for example, needs clear information, tightly coupled feedback and error really matters. And it is also the same context in which one’s implicit machinery will pick up on causal patterns rather than correlational ones.



So how does this relate back to Shamanism? And why does it matter?


The Shaman through their Shamanic practices (dancing, singing, enacting, etc.) get into this deeply immersive flow state. At the same time they also get a cascade of insights and enhanced implicit learning --- they pick up on real, causal patterns. What's interesting is that the insight cascade and the implicit learning reinforce each other. The insight gets our cognition to explore new patterns, the implicit learning picks up on those new patterns and these new patterns help restructure our cognition so that we get better at acquiring new patterns and so on. The flow state deeply enhances our cognition.


The flow state also gets areas of our brain that usually don’t communicate with each other at all, to talk to each other. This is especially prominent when one has gone through a disruptive strategy (like the Shaman) such as fasting, social isolation, taking psychedelics, etc.


Now, if areas of our brain were to just talk to each other at random, we would just experience noise. But remember the flow state also enhances our capacity for insight and intuition. This put together, enables us to make connections between different brain areas that are talking to each other. This is an ability we take for granted because we assume it’s a normal part of our cognition. This is our capacity for metaphor.



Metaphorical Cognition


The word ‘metaphor’ is itself a metaphor. It means ‘to bridge’ or carry over -- to connect things that are not normally connected. We are far more dependent on metaphors than we realize. Our thought and language is filled with metaphor -- do you get the point? (Both of those were metaphors). Metaphorical thought is deeply ingrained in us.



Metaphor is how we make creative connections between ideas. It is at the heart of both science and art. Lakoff and Johnson propose that all of our cognition is filled with and functions through metaphorical enhancement. The process of generating metaphor is one of the ways cognition, meaning and altered states of consciousness come together in order to make insightful connections. For example, think of what often happens when we try to solve problems --- we use analogies. There is a deep connection between how good a problem solver you are and your capacity for metaphorical thought.



And so the Shaman develops and uses psychotechnologies to alter their states of consciousness and get into the flow state. This experience makes them more insightful, intuitively powerful and also generators of metaphor. It literally provides people with the forms of thought that allow them to connect ideas.


The Shamans have a particularly interesting experience during this state of flow, called soul-flight. It is described to feel like an outwardly experience, almost as if they’re flying above the world. This is the origin of the phrase ‘getting high.’


Why would the brain generate such a feeling?


Think about where you are when you get a bigger, better picture of things. You’re above the situation. If someone who is in charge of things has ‘oversight’ or ‘supervision’ of them. These are metaphors that echo this Shamanic concept of soul flight. The Shaman gets a very comprehensive grasp of complex patterns but they experience it mainly intuitively and metaphorically.

These themes will be explored further in my post on episode three next week.


For now click here to access the second part of the episode that introduces The Axial Age, why it matters and the how invention of alphabetic literacy and coinage has had an effect on how we think today.

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