Welcome. This is a series in which I am going to endeavor to put together pretty much all of my work.
My name's John Vervaeke. I'm an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. I'm in the Psychology Department and in the Cognitive Science Program. And I also teach for the Buddhism psychology and mental health program. I produced a lot of videos on a lot of various topics. Some of you have perhaps seen them. But what I want to do now in this series is draw it all together and present to you a overall unified argument that can show you the interconnections between pieces that you might have seen before. Now how all this got started is I got very interested in a particular phenomena. I got interested in the fact that there seemed to be a growing confluence between people who are interested in Buddhism and people who are interested in cognitive science. We'll talk a little bit later as we go on on what cognitive science is. But you know some of this already in the world at large because we're going through what's called the mindfulness revolution.
Mindfulness is being spoken of everywhere. I was in a bookstore yesterday - Chapters - and there's a whole section just on mindfulness itself. So why is the mindfulness revolution occurring? Well it's occurring particularly because of this intersection between Buddhism and cognitive science. But why is this happening and why is it so explosive in nature? And what do we mean by mindfulness? Some of the work I've done is trying to get clear about that! We're going to talk about that in this series. Now there's also a lot of other things that, in my mind, seem to be convergent with this growing confluence between Buddhism and cognitive science. There is an increasing interest both academically and in the public at large in the topic of wisdom - something that people did not talk about very much not that long ago! Well wisdom is now a very hot topic within psychology and cognitive science and books offering to train you in wisdom are again becoming popular.
Same bookstore experience: yesterday I bought my son a book called "How to Be a Stoic". How is it that a philosophical position from the Hellenistic Era has become a popular book that people are seeking? Why is there this hunger for wisdom and why are people meeting it with these kinds of things? The stoicism the philosophies of the Hellenistic Period - [I'm] going to talk about that. I think there's good reason for that. Of course there's increasing academic and public interest in psychedelics. I just gave a talk earlier this week at Yale about psychedelics and the increasing interest in psychedelics and psychedelic experiences.
You're seeing radical things with them. People can be released from treatment resistant addiction; they can overcome post-traumatic stress disorder! With the best therapy, solution rate[s] for people with post-traumatic stress disorder is about, if things go really well, 20% or so. You introduce psychedelics into the therapy and you can get the the healing rate up to 80 percent!
So what's going on there? Why is there this interest? There is an increasing public interest which is matched by a huge academic in the topics of happiness.
Now we've always been a happiness oriented culture. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and so forth. Right? But it's taken a particularly interesting turn: the topic of "meaning" and "meaning in life" is coming to the fore. People, more and more, are talking about not just sheer contentedness, but what it is for a human life to be meaningful. And it turns out that meaning in life is terrifically important. It's very predictive of well-being. It's very predictive of how well you are doing in your life in general. So it is no wonder that people are seeking it out. Now my contention, and what I'm going to argue, is it's no coincidence that all of these things are happening right now!
It's no coincidence: this confluence between Buddhism, the mindfulness revolution, the interest in wisdom and ancient philosophies like "stoicism", the increasing public interest in psychedelics and transformative experiences and mystical experiences.
The increasing academic and public interest in meaning in life. There's a reason for it. There's a unifying account for why this is happening. But there's another set of things! This is sort of the light side of what I'm talking about. There is a set of dark factors that seem to be converging as well! We have what seems to be - although people have [been] disputing it, but I think the evidence is becoming clearer and clearer; the CDC just released some data recently - we're going through a mental health crisis. Suicide is spiking and it's... Now there are some socioeconomic factors, but there's clearly other things that are at work. There's an increasing sense - many people are expressing it of losing touch with reality. We encounter more and more often, in individuals and groups, Nihilism, expressions of cynicism.
Expressions of deep kinds of frustration and futility. You have the abandonment of trust in any of our public institutions. We've completely lost any sort of faith or trust in our political system. We're losing faith in our judicial system. Religious affiliation is declining consistently throughout. People's participation in clubs. Organization is in decline in general. And my co-authors on the book on "Zombies in Western culture a 21st century crisis" (Christopher Mastropietro and Filip Miscevic), we argued that the sense of being out of touch has gone on with an increasing sense (and we'll talk about this because I'm going to use this term technically. We're gonna talk about this and Frankfurt's use of it), there's an increasing sense of more and more bullshit, everywhere. Pervading! And if you take a look at the book we actually chart how this has been spiking and it's concorded with all kinds of other increases in these dark factors. People are getting the sense that we're spending - and you can see this already in the public media, but it's it's also within the academic world - that we're spending too much time in our virtual environments. There seems to be increasing evidence, for example, of a connection between various social media, increased depression, increased loneliness.
And then more in general, and we'll talk about how this shows up a little bit more implicitly, it shows up in the entertainment we seek and the mythologies we like, like the zombies! We're gonna talk about that. Why are zombies so big? Why are superheroes so big right now? There is an increase. These mythological - and we'll talk about myth means - these mythological forms, I'm gonna argue, are expressions of a cultural sense, a sense that we're stuck somehow. One way you can note that is just by noting how pervasive, almost to the point of being a constant factor in our background, is people talking about "crisis" and "collapse". "Apocalypse!" "The zombie apocalypse!" The imminent collapse of civilization. All of these things are now pervasive. They're taken for granted. At one point the movies demonstrating this had to be science fiction; they were considered radical. But now, this is becoming a pervasive background sense.
Now I think all of these negative factors also have a unifying explanation. In fact what I'm going to argue throughout the course of the series is that the positive factors and the negative factors all point to a unified explanation. This is gonna be an idea that our culture is experiencing a profound "meaning crisis". A "crisis in meaning".
Now we're going to have to talk about "what does that 'meaning' mean?".
Now, I'm not claiming that this is the only crisis we're facing! Far from it.
What I want to do in fact is talk about how the "meaning crisis" is interacting with other crisies: the environmental crisis. The socio-economic crisis. But in addition to those which are quite well discussed in the public at large. There is a meaning crisis which is being discussed quite significantly within academia but needs to be brought to the public at large because one of the things I'm going to argue is that these three crises are not independent from each other. They're interdependent in important ways. But what is this meaning that's come into crisis? Why do we hunger for it?
How do we cultivate the wisdom - because that's what I going to argue that wisdom is ultimately about - to generally enhance this meaning. Wisdom is about realizing in both senses of the word (becoming aware and making real), wisdom is about realizing meaning in life in a profound way. How do we cultivate this wisdom - what does it mean? And I'm not going to talk about that just theoretically, I'm going to talk about that practically as well. What are some practices that people can engage in and are engaging in to try and address this need for the cultivation of wisdom.
What role for example do do mindfulness practices play within the cultivation of wisdom. So, here's the three questions that we're going to keep coming back to again and again and again: What is this 'meaning'? Why do we hunger for it? And how do we cultivate the wisdom to realize it? So some of the topics, of course, [that] we're going be addressing are, centrally, the "meaning crisis" (How did this kind of meaning evolve - what is it? Why is it so important to the evolution of our humanity?) Then more specifically the history of the meaning crisis. (Why did it arise? What are the historical factors?) By doing that we'll get in a historical account of meaning. We'll get a sense of what this meaning is that has come into crisis that people, individually, feel they are lacking or losing in their lives.
We want to talk about connections between meaning, wisdom and - importantly - self transcendence. It's gonna turn out that this notion of self transcendence, again which we'll have to develop and explicate, is something that's a core need because it performs core functions for human beings. It is bound up with these ideas of wisdom, and of course meaning. And along the way, in fact right from the beginning, we're gonna start to see that there's deep connections between meaning, wisdom, self transcendence and altered states of consciousness. Why do human beings seek to alter their consciousness? In fact not just human beings; other intelligent organisms seek to do this. [New] Caledonian crows will tumble down roofs in order to make themselves dizzy for no other purpose than to alter their state of consciousness. What is going on? Why does intelligence need to be conjoined to an altered state of consciousness and why in particular have human beings developed very sophisticated processes for generating, harnessing and interpreting these altered states of consciousness. I'm going to talk about that in connection with Shamanism.
And ritual! We're going to talk about that in connection to the flow state. This is when you're in the zone and why people seek it and why it's so powerful. We're going to talk about it, as I mentioned, in connection with psychedelic experiences. More importantly the mystical experiences that can occur within some psychedelic experience because it turns out it's the mystical experience that is more important and transformative. But there's a subset of those mystical experiences that are very crucial. These are awakening experiences. These are experiences in which people come back from the mystical experience and say "that was somehow more real than this and I need to change my world. I need to change myself". They engage in what L.A. Paul has called "a transformative experience". What is also known as "quantum change"; a radical transformation of their lives. And we know, we've got good research now showing that they are right! Their lives get better after these awakening experiences.
We're going to talk about that in depth and, dare I say it, maybe we can bring all of this together and actually propose - and maybe some people will be affronted by this - but propose a scientific, a cognitive scientific account of what enlightenment is and why it alleviates the suffering from lack of meaning that is particularly pertinent for us today but has always been a perennial threat since the axial revolution. Now that means, of course, we're going to have to also talk about topics that have connection with the darker aspects, as I said, of meaning making. What's the connection, because they're deep and profound, between this meaning making that is so central and our endemic capacity for self-deception, for self-destruction. There's a reason why we are so awash in bullshit because bullshit is a perennial threat to us. Self-deception is endemic.
That means it'll be important to talk about foolishness as something different from ignorance. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. Foolishness is a lack of wisdom. Foolishness is when your capacity to engage your agency, pursue your goals is undermined and threatened by the self-deception and the self-destructive behavior that is a perennial vulnerability to your cognition. In fact, what I'm going to argue is the very same machinery that makes you so adaptive intelligent is the same machinery that makes you susceptible to foolishness. That will take us into some of the topics that are relevant to people's existential experience in meaning crisis. Topics like absurdity, alienation, futility, horror - real horror.
Most horror movies aren't horror. We'll talk about what horror really is and what people experience when they're actually experiencing horror. Their sense of grip on reality is being undermined and people find that, as you can imagine, terrifying. We're going to talk about meaninglessness and why more people experience this state. The state of despair. And once we do that, as we're moving into these kinds of topics, we will be moving gradually from the historical account of the origin of the meaning crisis - it would give us some sense from the history of what this meaning is - but we'll be moving into the cognitive scientific study of cognition. The cognitive, Scientific Investigation of meaning and meaning making. When people use this word "meaning", it's a metaphor. They mean there's something in their life that is analogous to how a sentence has meaning: the pieces fit together in some way. They can impact on your cognition and connect you to the world in some way. There's something about our lives that is analogous to the way sentences have meaning. We have to unpack that metaphor. Why is the metaphor used and what does the metaphor point to, when we talk about the meaning of our lives?
How is it, in fact it's some of the most meaningful experiences people have are precisely ones that are completely ineffable to them that they can't put into words.
What's going on? We're gonna have to talk about different kinds of knowing. Some of them that have fallen off our cultural radar precisely because of the meaning crisis. We tend to have reduced all of the ways that the ancients talked about how we know to one thing: To know is to have a special kind of belief. And so we are very belief centric which is why we are so focused as a culture on ideologies. But it turns out that we're gonna have to have a much more expanded notion of what knowing means. There is much more to knowing than having justified true beliefs. There's the kind of knowing that's involved in knowing how to catch a baseball. There's the kind of knowing of what it is like to be having this experience right now. There's the kind of knowing that is knowing what it's like to be in something you're participating in like a relationship. We have to talk about all of that.
Now of course some of you might be aware of those other kinds of knowing because you know how integral and important they are to therapy, which is another thing that is booming in our culture. Part of why it's blooming is the meaning crisis. Part of why it's booming is because people seek out therapy precisely because they are trying to recover these lost kinds of knowing. The kinds of insight that is needed the kind of transformation not of your beliefs but of how you see things. Your sense of self and your sense of realness have to be transformed often in therapy. That is why the psychedelics are so important for therapeutic success because they transform these other kinds of knowing. We're gonna talk about all of that. This will give us a structura,l functional account of meaning. What is the structural; what are its cognitive processes; what are its cognitive mechanisms? How do they function?
How can they fall into dysfunction? We're gonna have this historical account and this structural, functional account and we're going to make them talk to each other. They're gonna inform and constrain and enable each other. And from that dialogue, what I propose - audacious as it might sound - is a real response to the meaning crisis. An awakening from the meaning crisis. That's what this series is about: awakening from the meaning crisis. Not in some ideological fashion but in a profound, transformative and existential manner. So this is not something that I can do simply because this is not a problem for which there are simplistic answers. If anybody offers you an answer to this crisis in an hour I would wager that they are deceiving you, manipulating or they are in themselves significantly self deceived.
There is a reason why we're stuck, there's a reason why this is hard. This is a complex and difficult thing we are undertaking. So this series is going to be several videos long because I'm going to carefully and I hope responsibly build an argument to try and show how we can awaken from the meaning crisis. How that meaning crisis interacts with the mental health crisis; how it interacts with the environmental crisis; how it interacts with the socio-economic crisis. Now, this is my commitment to you. I will always do my best to offer rigorous, rational argumentation. I will try my best to give proper scholastic credit to other people. Please understand that I'm aware that I'm not, and nobody should be claiming, to offer you the absolute uncontested truth. I'm going to offer you good arguments good evidence. But I don't want this to be an academic series. I do my academic work and I'm proud of it. But this, I want this to be for people who are coming to this precisely because of a genuine personal existential interest.
So I will try to keep jargon and technicalities to a minimum. I will have to introduce terms to you and I hope to explain them carefully along the way. So, my commitment to you is to - I can't be unbiased! That's not a thing! What I will try my best to do is to present to you my arguments, my viewpoints and why I think they can be understood to be highly plausible.
So, I want to start with how and why is this meaning so much a part of our humanity? Why is it sewn in to our humanity so much. And I think the thing that we want to understand is [that] I have to start somewhere, Right? And that can be misleading because I think, and one of my co-authors Filip Miscevic, this is something that he's very concerned with, I think this is a continuum question: I think the deep connections between meaning making and cognition go deeply back into our evolutionary heritage way before our humanity. So the fact that I'm starting somewhere is not meant to indicate that this is the absolute starting point. What I want to do is point to a time when many people think our humanity, the kind of people we are now, came into form. Not fully like the way it is now, because of course there's been lots of historical and cultural processes, but the kind of humanity that we would recognize as "us" and how much this was bound up with meaning making in the way that I've been talking about.
So this period is known as the Upper Paleolithic transition. It occurs around 40000 BCE. Now what's interesting about this is that biologically as a species we've existed much longer than this. We existed about, and there's some controversy around this, but conservatively since about two hundred thousand BCE. But around, again roughly, 40000 BCE there's a change. A radical change.
Now, again, picking a specific time makes it look like there is nothing before; there are no precursors. Some people have presented the Upper Paleolithic transition that way, I'm not doing that.!I think that's a mistake. There's a continuum - you can see it back, but at some point there's this radical change: the upper Paleolithic transition. You see things human beings doing things, they're not doing before: they're making art. They're making representational art. They're making sculpture. They're making cave paintings. We have good evidence they start making music.
What else are they doing? Well we have some pretty good evidence that there is significant enhancement in their cognition. How do we know this? Well we have the first use of calendars. Obviously not with numbers and dates because numeracy hasn't been invented, but you have the symbolic representation of the phases of the moon and the passage of days and so human beings are keeping track of time across very abstract patterns so that they can enhance their hunting abilities. Something else is happening which, again it's so intrinsic to our humanity: we're developing projectile weapons.
We're developing projectile weapons! So the Neanderthals who are contemporaneous with Homo sapiens at this time don't have projectile weapons. Their spears are thick shafted heavy stone; they're thrusting tools. We know that they were getting in close to their quarry because they have bone damage that's similar to the kind of bone damage we see in human beings who are involved in cowboy rodeos where you're messing around with large angry mammals.
Homo sapiens do something different: they start to develop very thin spears, not with stone tips but with bone tip and bone is much harder to use. The point about these is [that] they're very good as projectile weapons, they're very light and human beings develop the spear thrower and sling and they start to develop the ability to carry multiple missiles and project them at a long distance. Now that requires increased development of your frontal lobe area which is going to turn out to be of course very important as we'll see for enhancing your intelligence.
Think about how deep this is in your cognition, this idea of like throwing. Think about how you talk about how you have a project that you're working on. "Project": you're throwing. Or people will talk about "oh there, over there, there's an object"; that means 'thrown against'. Or "I'm the subject"; that means 'thrown under'. All day long, cognitively, you're throwing. That's because this 'throwing task' is such a complex task. We take it so trivial that there is a moving target and I throw something I can hit it but if you try and build artificial intelligence to do that as the military is discovered that turns out to be a really really hard problem. So there's the projectile weapons are developing, the calendar, the music, the sculpture, the paintings. What's going on? Why is all of this stuff exploding?
Notice how all of this is associated with different aspects of what we mean by meaning. Obviously there's art and there's music - that's somehow meaningful. But there's also time is being made more meaningful it's being measured and understood in calendars and even time and space are now more meaningful because they're being used in this highly dynamic way in projectile weaponry.
So what's going on? Why did it occur? Well, there's a lot of good work done by this. David Lewis-Williams, Matt Rossano's work "Supernatural selection" I think is superlative. His articles like "Did meditating make us human?"
I got the pleasure of meeting Matt. He argues for what's going on at this time is a radical change in human cognition that's in line with the work of other people like Michael Winkelman. We know that before the Upper Paleolithic transition, about 30000 up to 60 thousand or 70 it's unclear because there's various times at what this might be happening. We know that we went through a near extinction event: human beings almost went extinct. We were crunched down they think maybe to a maximum of ten thousand individuals. We'd almost died off! Part of it seems to have been the overall climactic change at the end of the last ice age in Africa. Part of it there's a supervolcano that goes off around seventy thousand years ago. Not sure! But what happens is there's tremendous pressure put on human beings. They move to the coasts in general to try and survive. But, Human Beings seem to have adopted an interesting response to this. Now, first of all they diversify their diet and blah blah blah blah... that's all important, we'll talk about that. But what's really interesting is that they don't come up so much with a technological response because "climate" is to huge and too poorly understood! They come up with a social cognitive response. What human beings do is they start creating broader trading networks. You see because when you do that, you're not a subject to individual environmental variation. You have much more resources both in terms of what people can have, what kind of discoveries they're making. And so what happens is people start forming these much broader trading relationships. Now that's very significant because it opens up the scale at which human cognition has to operate in an important way. And human beings plausibly responded by developing things that we see now is pervasive. They developed a bunch of rituals - and we're going to talk a lot about why ritual is so important - for dealing with both the environmental challenge and the enhanced social network that they were creating to deal with it. By the way we're gonna talk about that a lot in this series: how your cognition is very much participatory. You participate in distributed cognition. Large networks of cognition. Way before the Internet networked computers together, culture networked brains together in order to provide some of our most powerful problem solving abilities.
So what are the rituals? You need various trading rituals because the thing you're doing now - and again think about how you take this for granted and living in a city it is the deep presupposition of civilization: you hang around with strangers! Lots of them, and that's just like "Oh yeah!" Well it's not "Oh yeah!" That's a hard thing! Other species don't do that. So what's happening is we're getting this shift, we're having to interact with people that are not in our kinship group, in our hunter gatherer group and we have to form relationships with them. So we start to develop rituals that have the function of enhancing our ability to come into communication and relationships of trust for individuals that we do not personally know. You say "OK!" That's why you still do stuff that makes no sense! You meet somebody and you do "that", you stick out your hand and they grab it and then they move it up and down. This is to show you have no weapons. This has allowed the person to touch you to see if your hands are clammy or not.There's all kinds of intuitive stuff going on. I can feel how tense you are. Most of us don't pay attention to this stuff anymore but it's there. When you shake hands. When you ask "How are you?" Now, again, that has become trivial! We don't want an answer! "How how are you...?" We don't... [Immitation answer...] Somebody starts answering you. "Oh no!" But originally that reflects something, because think about what important skill has to be enhanced for these rituals.
I have to be able to take your perspective. I have to know what's going on in your mind. I have to know how you feel. I have to be able to move from a first person perspective to a third person perspective really really well. Because if I can't do that, I'm not going to be able to trade with you. Now that ability to take enhanced perspective on others especially people that you don't know really means you have to develop [the] ability - Daniel Siegel calls "Mind Sight" - to pick up on other people's mental states. And here's the thing. As you start to increase your ability to pick up on other people's mental states you increase your ability to pick up on your own mental states.
And that of course is going to be part of the origin of things like meta cognition and mindfulness. Then the next type of ritual you need, it goes in the other direction. The trade ritual is how I deal with strangers. The problem is now when I'm starting to interact with all these people, my commitment and loyalty to my group is now more in question than it used to be in the past. It could be taken for granted because you just were with these people and they were with you all the time! But now, if you allow me the word, there's "temptation" from the stranger which of course is now part of all of our myths. The way the stranger can come in and tempt us. And so what do we do? Well we we create initiation rituals. Rituals that are designed to show our commitment to the group. And those rituals often require risk, threat, sacrifice. Now our rituals, our initiation rituals, have been very tamed down. But if you look back in time these initiation rituals are often very traumatic! Dramatic. People are put into situations in which they they might experience tremendous pain or fear. We'll talk about some of these as we go through the series. So, why? Why make somebody go through pain and fear? Because if they go through pain and fear, that shows that they're really committed to you! They're really committed to your group.
But what does that mean cognitively? What does it mean for how the mind gets trained? You have to really improve your ability to regulate your emotion. You have to really improve your ability to do what's called "de-centering": to let yourself be in the hands of other people. A non egocentric perspective because what's important now is it's not centered on you. The ritual is centered on you but you, through the ritual, are being centred on the group. This is having tremendous impact on your cognition.
Now there's a third kind of ritual that starts to emerge. And it seems to have picked up on these cognitive enhancements that the trade rituals and the initiation rituals bring. So I need to introduce an idea to you that's going to become pervasive. This is the notion of "Exaptation". "Exaptation". Now originally this is an idea from biology, but the work of Michael Anderson has brought it directly into understanding how the brain operates; how cognition operates. Exaptation, in biological terms, is an evolutionary mechanism. So for example I'm using my tongue now to speak. Tongues did not evolve for speech. If they did all the animals that had tongues would be speaking at you and that would be terrifying. Especially your cat! Your cat talks to you... I'm sure that that would be terrifying!
So, what did tongues evolve for? They evolved to move food around in your mouth. They're very flexible. And they're poison detectors. So they have all these - this is your last ditch defense for poison - they have all of these nerve endings. So you have this highly sensitive highly flexible muscle. Now just because of the way we evolved this muscle is also in the air passageway because evolution is not an intelligent designer: you use the same tube for breathing and for food - very bad design. But nevertheless that's how it is. So your tongue can interrupt your airflow. Flexible sensitive muscle that can interrupt airflow. That's what I need for speech. So the tongue was exapted. Evolution didn't have to make a speaking machine from scratch. It took something that evolved for one purpose and was able to exapt it and use it for another.
So what Michael Anderson and others are arguing is very often this is what the brain does. The brain will develop a mechanism a little machine instead of cognitive processes for doing one thing and then it will learn how to reuse that for something totally different. We're going to talk about that repeatedly through this series. So what happens is that these enhanced mental abilities that are coming out of the trading and initiation rituals seem to be taken up into another set of rituals - exapted into - that seemed to be also pervasive. These are shamanic rituals. These are shamanic rituals. We know that the ability to become aware of the mind, to control the mind to control your emotions are being trained as I said. We know that human beings, just because - [and] we'll see more about this later - just because they're highly intelligent creatures with sophisticated consciousness seek out altered states of consciousness. In shamanism what you have is you have a cultivated practice for altering your state of consciousness that taps into and exapts this enhanced "mind sight", this enhanced ability to manipulate and control your mental state and your emotional state.
Now Michael Winkelman's work shows that pervasive through hunter gatherer groups are shamanic individuals. In fact the shaman is such a pervasive historical figure that I think you can make a good case that it has become an archetypal figure. Something like "the wise old man". So "Yoda" and "Merlin"... These are all shamanic figures. What we know about shamanism is that they're the best health care you're gonna have for a long time and we'll talk about how and why that's the case. We know that if you've got a shaman in your group it's going to help to reduce discord within your group. It's going to enhance your hunting abilities of your group. Now I'm a scientist; I don't believe in any supernatural abilities or spirits or things like that. So I seek an alternative - and Matt Rossano and Michael Winkelman - I seek an alternative explanation of why our shamans are so effective? What is going on? And what I want to talk about is how central shamanism was to the Upper Paleolithic transition because a plausible case can be made that it's the advent of shamanism that helps to explain how human beings are capable of this sudden explosion in their cognition.
This is of course the thesis of several people as I mentioned: Michael Winkelman. Lewis-Williams and others. Matt Rossano.
Because here's the issue: It's not a hardware change. The brain has already existed for one hundred and sixty thousand years. It's not changing significantly during the upper Paeleolithic transition. It's much more likely that it's not a hardware change in the brain, it's a software change in how human beings are using the brain and what part of what I want to argue is that shamanism is probably playing a significant role in that software change. So now I need to introduce yet one more other term. And again this is going to be important. This is the idea of a psycho-technology.
Okay so technology means the systematic use of a tool - this [pen] is a tool right here right? ,The first thing to understand and this is Andy Clark's phrase "You're a natural born cyborg". your brain has evolved across several species to use tools. In fact when you start using a tool even for a very short period of time your brain will start to model it as part of your body. That is why you can do weird things like when you're parking your car you can feel where the edge of your car is and all that sort of stuff. You're a natural born cyborg you have evolved to be integrated with machines. Look at me. I'm a cyborg. Look at this around me. The only thing that's natural here biologically is naked me! Everything else is a tool! Everything else! These are tools! I wasn't born with clothing. I use this in order to modify my ability to move through environments and carry stuff around. This is a tool. This is a tool. This is a tool. This is a tool. These are tools.
Now, what's interesting is that can be exapted. Your brain's ability to attach to a tool can move off of a physical thing, onto a cognitive thing. So, a physical tool fits your biology, fits your biology and enhances it. I can leave permanent marks that I can't otherwise do biologically on this board. I have a bottle; it fits my hand and I can carry liquids around. If I had to carry it like that, the amount of liquid I can carry is minimal. It fits your biology and enhances it. A psycho-technology fits your brain and enhances how it operates. You say "What are you talking about? What's a psycho-technology?" Look... Here's one right here. It's called literacy. You're not born literate. You're born linguistic. You're born learning how to talk. (Noam Chomsky all that sort of thing.) But you're not born literate. In fact for most of our history we were completely illiterate.
What does literacy do for you? It's a standard set of tools that standardize how you process information. Notice how it enhances your cognition: I don't have to hold all these terms in my mind. I can leave them there on the board. I can write stuff down and come back to it later. So notice what I can do. I can take my brain now and link it to my brain back then and my brain in the future. So I'm networking all these instances together. I'm improving my cognition. I can also network my brain with your brain and improve my ability to solve problems. Think of, if I were you do this to you, I'm going to take literacy out of your brain right now! And you can't - and I mean literally in your head too - you can't imagine words. You can't put stuff on paper, you can't reflect on your own cognition. I take that out of you. Your brain is the same hardware. But then the problems you can solve collapsed down dramatically. That's what psycho-technologies do. They enhance the software of your cognitive machinery. Shamanism is a set of psycho-technologies for altering your state of consciousness and enhancing your cognition. So, what does shamanism look like? What are the kinds of things you do when you're a shaman? There are many people of course who claim to be practicing shamanism today. And that's another thing. Why this rise in Neo shamanism? What are people thinking they're trying to get from it?
The shaman does a lot of interesting things in order to get into a particular state. The shaman will often engage in things like sleep deprivation. Intense long periods, hours of singing, dancing chanting. The shaman will often engage in immitation. Put on the clothing, mask that represents some other figure, some other animal. Sometimes the shaman will go into periods of isolation - social isolation. Go out into the wilderness. And of course, although it's not necessary but it has been pervasive, shamans will make use of psychedelics, in order to help bring about an altered state of Consciousness. So what's going on here?
Steve Taylor, In his book "Waking from Sleep" talks about these disruptive strategies that people, even today, use in order to try and bring about what I called awakening experiences. These radical transformations in people's sense of self and reality. I'm going to talk about that.
But one of the main ideas here is what a shaman is typically doing is trying to disrupt the normal ways in which you're finding patterns in the world. Why would you want to disrupt the normal way you find patterns in the world? Because the way you find patterns - and remember I said this; the very thing that makes you adaptive also makes you subject to self-deception - the way you find patterns is very profound.
So this is something I study as a scientist. Many of you may have seen this. So this is called "The Nine Dot problem". You have to join all nine dots with four straight lines. You have to start the next line from the terminus of the previous line and when people see this they initially say "well this is very easy! Of course I can do this! One, two, three, four... Oh wait I missed the Middle dot! OK one, two, three... Wait! One, two, Wait! One, two..." And then a pause. This actually turns out to be a very difficult problem for people to solve: Joining all nine dots with four straight lines. But why is it hard? One line, two lines, three lines, four lines. What was hard about that? And when you do that of course people get angry at you they say "you cheated! You went outside the box! You went outside the square!" That's where 'think outside the box' comes from. Now why that was hard is because you projected a pattern here. The Square. And then you engaged unconsciously - unconsciously - your skills of connecting the dots. When you were a kid you'd connect the dots. And when you connect the dots you're not supposed to do this: make a non dot turn. If you do that, you won't get a picture of a picnic table, you'll get like an acid trip psychedelic thing. So, unconsciously, you project a pattern and then you activate the appropriate skills and then you're locked and you're blocked. You can't solve that problem, not because of anything there in the data but because of the way you have framed it.
You have to disrupt your framing. We're going to talk a lot about that: in order to get an insight, in order to get an insight. Now let me tell you something, again to start to introduce this to you. Saying to people "think outside the box", and this is kind of funny if you think about it... Saying to people "think outside the box" does not help them with this problem. Giving them the belief that they have to go outside the box does not help them to solve this problem! That's what I meant when I said "you shouldn't reduce all of your sense of knowing to believing". What's involved here is not believing that you have to go outside the box. It's knowing how to go outside the box; how to alter your attention; how to change your perspective on what's salient to you. [On] what is relevant. How to alter what's important or real to you. Now what shamanism is, is it's a set of practices, disruptive practices and attentional practices that are designed to disrupt everyday framing so that the shaman can get enhanced insight. Now what kind of insight? Insight into patterns in the environment that other people might not be picking up on. Enhanced insight - mind-sight - into other people. And here's the sense of participatory knowing that I mentioned. When the shaman is enacting the animal, the shaman isn't having beliefs about the deer. The shaman is becoming the deer. I don't mean metaphysically, but the shaman is trying to get together the sense of the skills, the kind of perspective the deer has, the way the deer thinks, the kind of world the deer lives in... And by becoming the deer, by having this participatory knowing of what it is to be a deer, it enhances the ability to track and find the deer. Now these enhanced capacities for insight, and mindset, participatory knowing, means the shaman combines a lot of things that are for us in separate individuals. shamans are highly charismatic. Imagine if you could take a rock star, a super rock star, a super therapist, a super artist, put them all in one individual and then they come to you when you're sick! They can enhance your ability to trigger your own placebo effect. The placebo effect is real! 30 to 40 percent of all real medication - the ones we sell as real drugs - is placebo effect! If you have an individual that can trigger that, and that's all you have at that time, that's still 30 to 40 percent better than you had before. So what are the shamans doing?
Notice what they're doing. They're really enhancing their capacity for cognition. Now what we're going to do in the next video is we're going to come back to the shamans. We're gonna talk more about what they're doing. How they're enhancing their cognition and why this played such an important role in making human beings into the kind of meaning makers there are. We'll see what it is. But you can see already - notice, in order to tap into all these kinds of knowing in order to bring about this altered state of consciousness, notice how much the shaman is manipulating the meaning of things which isn't the same thing as being a charlatan.
So we're starting to see right from the beginning the connections between meaning making, altered states of consciousness and enhanced capacity to be in touch with the world... and then, what's the connection to "wisdom". The word "Shaman" means "one who knows", "one who sees", "one who has insight". Shamans are considered wise people, and that's why we have all these words. Like the word "Wizard" means "a wise person".
OK. So that's it for our first video. You get a sense from this of how we're going to proceed. Thank you very much for your time.
Other helpful resources about this episode:
Notes on Bevry
Summary and Transcript on awakeningfromthemeaningcrisis.com