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Episode 12: Higher States of Consciousness Pt 2

Previous episode: The self is at a state of oneness; there’s an intimate connection between the self and the world that is ‘flowing’ and ‘anagogic’. There is a profound sense of inner peace, and the self loses its ego-centrism. The experience is often described by people as ineffable. Vervaeke also discussed the continuity hypothesis; the same machinery that’s at work in our everyday experience of reading (for example), is exapted into moments of insight, into insight cascades of flow, and then finally exapted into a mystical experience that brings about a deep transformative experience. Professor Vervaeke proposed that an HSC is similar to a state of flow. While flow refers to a particular skill, in an HSC, it refers to getting an optimal grip on the world; the skill is domain-general.

Disruptive strategies (both naturally disruptive strategies and mindfulness psychotechnologies) are central to insight experiences. Disruptive strategies increase the variation in the information we process. This reveals both good (you get to see the ‘real’ patterns that are remaining and constant) and bad invariants (you are able to see the ways in which you are systematically misframing). This process is akin to a child going through a developmental stage that involves overcoming a systematic error of framing reality (a child who makes an error with the empty space in the candy experiment is likely to make similar mistakes with height). HSC affords us the developmental change of seeing through the illusion and into reality, which is central to wisdom.

Read my post on Episode 11 here.

In this episode, Professor Vervaeke offers a psychological, information-processing, and neurological account of what is going on in HSC and why we should pay attention to it.


Another crucial feature that is central to both flow experiences and HSC is decentering. Grossman and Kross (2014) suggested that decentering strategies are especially important in the cultivation of wisdom. His work on the ‘Solomon Effect’ suggests that we are terrible at finding solutions to our own problems. Most of us tend to explain our problems from a first-person perspective, which is exactly what participants defaulted to when Grossman asked them to talk about their problems. However, when he asked them to decenter and redescribe it from a third-person perspective, they realize the ways in which they had been blocked. By taking another perspective to their problem and decentering from their point of view, they are able to break the frame and often have a central insight into how they solve their problem. Similarly, in an HSC, one is radically decentered from their perspective. Notice how egocentrism is not a single error in one problem but rather, a systematic error. This is why it is often described as 'being asleep'; when you wake up, you have a systematic change in your consciousness. This radical decentering brings about a change in salience landscape, perspectival knowing, and ultimately how we participate with the world. It involves altering the machinery of our cognition, consciousness, and the self. Therefore, decentering involves a fundamental transformation of character. Work by Sui and Humphrey 2015 shows that one of the functions of yourself is to act as glue; by making things relevant to yourself, you can make them relevant to each other and in that sense ‘glue’ them together. This is a continuous process --- as we glue things together, we glue ourselves together. The self is a systematic set of functions that are integrating and complexifying (rather than homogenizing) things together. Professor Vervaeke proposes that this powerful machinery that is central to your cognitive agency of the self can be exapted onto how you make sense of the world. This would mean that the machinery that was normally self-focused could be used to achieve a deeper integration of the world, to reveal deeper underlying patterns. Novak (1996) and Claxton (2000) suggest that people who go through mystical experiences corroborate this; all of the machinery and energy that has been bound up in the self turns onto the world. This is why the world becomes ‘alive’ to so many. At the psychological level, we can understand HSC in terms of decentering, exaptation of the machinery, flowing optimal grip, and enhanced awareness of invariants. In this sense we can see why this machinery is operating and producing the experiential profile it's producing. What about at the informational processing level?

Let’s look at work being done in AI and machine learning. The use of disruptive strategies to get machines to learn better is particularly interesting. Woodward et al (2014) stressed the importance of noise, entropy, and randomness in training neural networks to learn for themselves. In fact, he said ‘such randomness is an essential aspect of the self-optimization process’.

Why would disruptive strategies be central to getting neural networks to learn better?

When we try to understand data graphically through a scatter plot, we do not typically draw a line that goes over every dot in an attempt to capture the data. Instead, we draw a line of best fit that might not even touch any of the points (data compression). We do this in order to find a function that will generalize across different relevant contexts so that the function will be true not just for the sample, but for a certain kind of population. The problem with neural networks is that because they are so powerful, they overfit the data. In order to avoid this overfitting, one would have to throw noise into the system and disrupt the system of processing by a significant amount. The disruption prevents overfitting and allows for data compression. The compression helps the network find the real invariance --- the real patterns that will generalize across all the relevant varying contexts. We also don’t want the neural networks to underfit the data either because then it won't pick up on any patterns at all. The systems have to toggle back and forth and find a sweet spot between variation and compression to detect real patterns that allow them to become good learners. What is needed is disruptive strategies set within powerful pattern detection. That’s exactly the system that's at work in people that are pursuing HSC. What about at the neurological level?

Newberg et al (2018) tracked brain activity during HSC experiences and found a particular pattern of activity in the frontal and parietal areas. This frontal-parietal connection is primarily associated with one’s general intelligence and one’s ability to make sense of and get an optimal grip on the world. Initially, these areas get hyperactive, after which they get hypoactive; a huge increase in activity followed by a significant decrease in activity. The greater this disruptive shift, the more powerful the awakening experience is. Throughout this, there is increased activity in the thalamus, the area of the brain that tries to integrate different kinds of information together.

This is similar to what goes on in an insight experience. Initially, the machinery is active to frame the information, and then there’s a disruption that breaks it. The system then re-organizes itself. Psychedelic experiences also have similar shifts. Researchers found that psilocybin increases metastability in the brain. Metastability is a state where the brain is engaging in complexification; simultaneously integrating and segregating information (Kelso & Tognoli 2014). Normally your brain is integrating things or segregating/differentiating them. But on psilocybin, and in HSC you get a state of metastability which allows for complexification which allows for new emergent functions.

We now have an account of the psychological level, at the machine processing level, and at the neurological experience during an HSC that explains why these states are so powerful.

What about the prescriptive argument? Why should we listen to people who have been in this state? Why should this serve as a justification for any life transformation? Are these states actually good guides for transformation?

The notion of Plausibility

Plausibility is central to our notion of how real things are. Plausible here refers to how something stands to reason or how it makes good sense. Most of the time we cannot base our actions on certainty, and instead, have to rely on plausibility. Vervaeke, Anderson Todd, and Leo Ferraro are working on the idea of plausibility as a sense of ‘trustworthiness’; we regard a particular proposal or construct as trustworthy if it has been prosecuted by many independent but converging lines of evidence. For example, we would regard information as more real if it came from multiple senses rather than just one. The fact that all one's senses are telling them the same thing doesn’t give a person certainty (because of the possibility of a type of schizophrenia) but it does give a person a level of trustworthiness, and significantly reduces the probability that the person is being self-deceived.

It’s also important to note that people often come back from these states with different pronouncements about the nature of the world. Sometimes these are bizarre, and two people can also have the exact opposite experiences; some may come back convinced there is a God and someone may come back convinced that there isn’t one. What is important to know about HSC is that the propositions that people generate from HSC are largely useless; HSC is not about propositional knowing, but rather, about the participatory transformation that comes with it.

So far it is clear that HSC is an optimization of one’s state of processing. They bring about a state of high plausibility and they are great guides for transformation if it is set in a sapiential tradition.

Now that we have a preliminary account of HSC and what the Buddha’s awakening was plausibly like, we can return to what he specifically proposed, thereby finishing the discussion on the Axial Revolution in India. We will then return to the Meddiaterian world and discuss what happened after Aristotle. Watch Episode 13 here.

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