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Episode 11: Higher States of Consciousness Part 1

Updated: May 1, 2021

Previous episode: Higher states of consciousness are complicated. When people have an altered state of consciousness like a dream, they somehow regard that as more real than their everyday state of consciousness. Unlike a dream that people often discard as ‘random’ or ‘bizarre’, people claim to have improved access to reality after an HSC experience. We know, through literature on the Axial Revolution, that the ability to transcend illusion and become connected to what is more real is central to meaning in life. Read my post on episode 10 here.

In this episode, Professor Vervaeke talks about the components of higher states of consciousness (HSC), how it's related to flow and insight and how it affects our cognitive functioning.

In order to understand higher states of consciousness and how they contribute to self-transcendence and wisdom, we need a theory that is both descriptively and prescriptively adequate. A descriptive theory should help us understand why these HSC produce such intense transformations from psychological, cognitive, and neurological perspectives. We also need a prescriptive theory, an account that explains why it might be considered rationally justifiable that these states authorize and legitimate such transformations.

Descriptive Theory of HSC

There are three components central to HSC:-

  1. How is the world being experienced?

  2. How is the self being experienced?

  3. How is the relationship between the self and the world being experienced?

How is the world being experienced?

People who experience higher states of consciousness report a tremendous sense of clarity; the world appears in a way that is very clear to them and makes sense in a way that hasn’t before. They often perceive their reality as ‘brighter’. Notice how this is also descriptive of a flow experience; people who have experienced flow states often talk about their experience as ‘bright’, ‘vivid’ and ‘intense.’ They often talk about an ‘expansion of vision’ that is also cognizant of finer details. Their ability to enhance attentional framing is improved, which increases their capacity for insight. The world feels ‘alive’, and they universally describe this experience as 'beautiful'.

How is the self being experienced?

Individuals who have experienced HSC report a fundamental change in their sense of self; their autobiographical, egocentric self disappears (which is also what happens in the flow state) and they remember their ‘true self’. They describe this as a state of inner peace and harmony; the various components of their personality and cognition are in sync and work together in an optimal fashion. They often report that it's the greatest sense of peace and joy they have ever experienced in their life.

How is the relationship between the world and the self being experienced?

There’s a profound sense of ‘oneness’ amongst individuals who have experienced HSC. They lose their sense of separate identity and feel like they have shared identity with reality --- as if they are participating with it rather than in it.

Disruptive Strategies and HSC

Disruptive strategies are also a crucial component of HSC. In fact, HSC are often preceded by specific strategies designed to disrupt normal cognitive functioning that alter one’s state of consciousness. This includes both long and short-term strategies. Long-term strategies involve extended periods of meditation and mindfulness practices. Short-term strategies involve fasting, sexual and sleep deprivation, drumming, chanting, etc. People also often use psychedelics (because psychedelics have the ability to disrupt normal states of consciousness) to complement these strategies. The Griffins lab (2019) found that people who practice mindfulness and also take psychedelics have more enhanced HSC experiences than people who only use psychedelics. Disruptive strategies are also central to insight.

HSC and Meaning in Life

The claim that HSC guide transformation has received empirical backing.

In a 2017 experiment, 69% of participants reported ontonormativity--- a sense of enhanced realness after their HSC (Yaden et al.). This was predictive of significant improvement in many dimensions of their life (family, social, career, etc). The experimenters also found that they had a tendency to shift from a first-person/egocentric orientation to an allocentric/third-person perspective in their descriptions; they tended to de-center when they spoke about their HSC experiences. Reality appears to be so salient in a state of higher consciousness, that it eclipses the self-conscious, egoic-self.

Likewise, in a moment of insight, one experiences a similar ‘super-salience’ of an underlying ‘reality’ or pattern that alters what is actually important. The ability to find coherence and discover an intelligibly integrative pattern is essential to a sense that one’s life has meaning.

Heinzelman (2014) found that if people were able to find an underlying pattern between a set of pictures, they rated their lives as more meaningful. In other words, the act of making sense and finding coherence makes people view their lives as more meaningful.

Why do people rate their lives as more meaningful after finding an underlying pattern? Does it have something to do with the ease of processing ability?

Topolinski and Reber (2010) provide some clarity on the processes at work in an insight experience. They describe insight as a 'fluency spike'. ‘Fluency’, here, is a general property of all our cognitive processing. Initially, several Psychologists thought fluency referred to the ease of processing. They thought that if information was made easier to process, it would be easier to understand or more believable, regardless of the semantic content.

But if it was as simple as ‘ease of processing’, simply repeating a stimulus would trigger a sense of fluency, which it doesn’t. It’s more about how accessible and applicable the information is and how well your system is able to zero in on relevant information. Think of how, for example, alphabetic literacy as a psychotechnology improves your cognitive power and makes your cognitive processing more fluent.

Insight experiences trigger a spike in fluency; there is a significant increase in your ability to process relevant information and therefore you judge the information as more real.

In HSC, there is an enhanced fluency; your brain is working optimally and implicit learning is picking up on complex patterns and zeroing in on causal, rather than correlation patterns.

The Continuity Hypothesis

Fluency gets enhanced in an insight experience; insight gets enhanced in flow; flow experiences get enhanced into mystical experiences; and mystical experiences can bring about transformative experiences.

According to the continuity hypothesis, the cognitive machinery is being continually exapted into more powerful processing as it progresses from an insight experience to HSC and then transformative experiences. Newberg believes that if you have these little enlightenment experiences (fluency-insight-flow) then it will eventually produce HSC. In this sense, it’s not just a continuity hypothesis, but also a priming hypothesis.

So what exactly goes on in an HSC?

Dreyfus et al. talk about having an ‘optimal grip’ on cognition (similar to Charles Taylor’s conformity theory). When one tries to perceive an object, especially an unfamiliar one, they try to get to a place and position where they can see as many of the relevant details as possible (by zooming in) while being aware of the overall picture (by zooming out). Having an optimal grip on something involves an ability to balance between zooming in and zooming out.

Think of martial arts for example; when you learn how to gauge your opponent, you try to get an optimal grip on them. The point is to not only get a sense of their whole body but also to zero in on relevant details. You also need an optimal grip on your own body. So when you take a stance it helps you be more aware of your body in relation to what you want to do in the environment/to your opponent. This is a cognitive process. Eleanor Rosch talks about this in terms of the level of generalization we use in our vocabulary. We tend to talk about things at the ‘basic’ level. For example, if you saw a cat, you wouldn’t refer to it as a ‘mammal’ or a ‘main coon’, you would refer to it as a ‘cat’. We default to a basic level in most of our categorization because that’s how we get our optimal grip on the environment.

An optimal (cognitive) grip involves an understanding of the gestalt (the whole picture) and the relevant details. For example, when you read a word, you don’t fixate on one specific letter, you’re aware of the letters (details) in a way that helps you read the word (gestalt/overall picture).

Think of going on a first date. You’re supposed to laugh ...but not too much, make eye contact...but not too much, ask questions….but not too many and mix up between all these ‘strategies’ but not chaotically. There’s a ‘sweet spot’ and that depends on your sense of the other person, both as a whole and through relevant details.

This ability to have optimal grip applies to multiple domains -- whether you’re playing a sport, reading, going on a date, or working on a project. You’re always trying to strike the right balance between working with the relevant details and being cognizant of the overall picture.

Being in a state of higher consciousness is like getting an optimal grip of reality while being in the flow state. In a HSC one is able to expand their view (see the bigger picture) and simultaneously zero in on the relevant details. This goes beyond intellectual theories and propositional thought. It involves an intense experience of reality.

The Strategy of Breaking-Frame

Disruptive strategies involve breaking-frame --- breaking away from one’s habitual or automatic cognitive framing. Humans are naturally predisposed to break-frame; one example of this is mind-wandering. Although ‘mind-wandering’ by definition sounds unproductive, as Zac Irving (expert on mind-wandering) puts it, “having a free association thought process that randomly generates memories and imaginative experiences can lead you to new ideas and insights” This can help us break out of our fixed cognitive perspectives and afford us some useful cognitive flexibility. The ability to shift one’s cognitive frame is called de-automatization. Remember how, in the 9-dot problem, participants would unconsciously frame it as a square and a connect-the-dots problem? That is an example of how automatic framing blocks someone from solving the problem. In order to get out of that framework and make a new framework, one must de-automatize their cognition.

Siegel et al (2007) found that moderate amounts of distraction/noise enhance cognitive flexibility. Advice like ‘sleep on it’ or ‘go for a walk’, incorporate disruptive strategies that help re-engage with a problem with a different perspective that helps us solve it.

Appropriate distraction also increases variation in your processing. When variation is increased, the constant or invariant elements become more apparent.

The Two Types of Invariants.

There are two kinds of invariants. Good invariants refers to what stays constant after variance is increased. By increasing the variance, it’s easier to tell what’s invariant/constant and thus more ‘real’. Good invariants reveals real patterns. There is also bad invariance. This is the kind of invariance that locks someone into a certain kind of thinking, as in the 9-dot problem. Bad invariance points to a shortcoming in one’s perception.

Kaplan and Simon (1990) talk about the importance of implementing the ‘Notice Invariants Heuristic’ across solution attempts. This involves noticing properties of a situation that remain constant across solution attempts.

The element that is fixed/invariant across all ‘failed’ problem formulations, could be the element that needs to be changed in order to find an appropriate solution. Noticing previous shortcomings requires humility and careful attention.

Kaplan and Simon talk about applying the ‘Notice Invariants Heuristic’ to a single error across problems. But what about the case of a system of errors across multiple situations?

Think of how the four-year-old chooses the more spread-out row of candies because she thinks it has more candies. Experiments have shown this to be a systematicity of errors rather than just a single error --- for example, a child who makes this error with space is likely to make similar mistakes in relation to height. In other words, it's a system of errors across domains. So, developmental change in this case refers to a kind of insight that applies to multiple systems/domains so that it can help with interconnected, interrelated errors. Through such developmental changes, we cognitively grow and mature. This is similar to what happens in an enlightenment experience. One is able to increase variance, go beyond developmental constraints and connect with what’s more real.

This discussion will be completed in episode 12.

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