Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 1 (Summary & Notes)

“Many people are talking about the meaning crisis, but what I want to argue is that these problems are deeper than just social media problems, political problems, even economic problems… they’re deeply historical, cultural, cognitive problems.”

Intro Video [2:50]

Ep. 1 — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Introduction [59:15]

  • This whole thing started because Vervaeke noticed “a growing confluence between people interested in Buddhism and people who are interested in cognitive science.” (Should come as no surprise, mindfulness is being spoken of everywhere these days…)
  • There’s a growing interest in the topic of Wisdom. (“I bought my son a book called ‘How To Be A Stoic’” […] “Why is there this hunger for wisdom?”)
  • Also: Psychedelics, Mystical Experiences, Happiness, Meaning… The argument: it’s no coincidence. There’s also a growth of the other side of this phenomenon: nihilism, cynicism, lack of trust, participation in clubs, religions, etc. It’s showing up in our entertainment too (“Why are superheroes so big right now? […] talk of apocalypse is pervasive.”)
  • “Wisdom is about realizing, in both senses of the word: becoming aware & making real, the meaning of life in a profound way. How do we cultivate this wisdom? What does it mean?”
  • Deep connections between meaning, wisdom, self-transcendence, and altered states of consciousness.
  • Maybe we could propose (by the end of this series) a cognitive, scientific account of what enlightenment is.
  • “What’s the connection (because they’re deep, and profound) between this meaning-making that is so central, and this endemic capacity for self-deception/self-destruction.”
  • Ignorance=lack of knowledge; foolishness=lack of wisdom (“the very same machinery that makes you adaptively intelligent is the same machinery that makes you susceptible to foolishness”)
  • When people use the word ‘meaning’ they’re using the word as a metaphor. i.e. there’s something in their life that is analogous to how a sentence has meaning. Pieces fit together in some way, connect you to the world in some way, etc. Why are the most meaningful experiences people have the ones that are the most ineffable to them — that they can’t put into words?
  • “We’re going to have to have an expanded notion of what ‘knowing’ means.”
  • All of this — including how therapy alters/transforms your interpretation of self and realness, &the importance of psychedelics on transforming other ways of ‘knowing’ — will give us a structural, functional account of meaning.
  • During the Upper Paleolithic transition humans begin to undertake a variety of new activities such as sculpture, painting, music… and throwing (i.e. as projectiles thrown at a long distance, as opposed to the thrusting, stabbing weapons of before), all of which required a development of the frontal lobe which is importance for enhancing intelligence. Throwing is an incredibly hard problem (as AI researchers in the military are learning) that we take for granted, but think of how deep this is in your cognition, this idea of throwing: you’ll talk about having a Project you’re working on (you’re throwing), or over there is an Object (thrown against), or I’m the Subject (thrown under). “All day long, cognitively, you’re throwing”
  • After an extinction level event that brought human population down to ~10,000 individuals we found a variety of ways to cope and persist, but the main one was an extensive trading network. Suddenly we had to undertake distributed cognition (i.e. interact with large networks of cognition —“long before the internet network computers together culture networked brains together”). This required various trading rituals, because we now had to interact with strangers (We’re used to it now, but hanging out with strangers is a hard thing. “Other species don’t do that.”) e.g. grabbing someones hand and moving it up and down vigorously upon encountering them (a handshake). Shows you have no weapons, lets people feel whether or not your hands are clammy or not, I can feel how tense you are… “lots of intuitive stuff going on.” Most people don’t pay attention to this stuff anymore, but it’s there when you shake hands. (Other example: saying “How are you?” which requires me to take on your perspective. Again, cognitively not obvious and not easy. What Daniel Siegel calls “Mindsight” [see books references below])
  • This leads yo us being able to pick up on our own mental states — which will eventually be the origin of things like metacognition and mindfulness.
  • Now, though, my commitment and loyalty to my group is more in question than it has been in the past. “The stranger that can come and tempt us” is a part of our myths to this day. So we have initiation rituals to bind us more strongly and show our commitment to the group. These rituals often require risk, threat, and sacrifice.
  • While these rituals show how committed we are, by going through this fear and pain it requires we improve our ability to “de-center” and regulate our emotions. A non-egocentric perspective. “The ritual is centered on you, but you — through the ritual — are being centered on the group.”
  • Another type of ritual rooted in this idea of exaptation. (A term originally from biology but brought to adjacent fields of cognition/brain operation by Michael Anderson [see books references below]) It refers to an evolutionary adaptation. e.g. your tongue, which you use to speak, didn’t evolve for speaking (if that were true then every organism with a tongue would be speaking). Tongues were designed to move food around in your mouth, to be poison detectors (it’s your last defense for poison), etc. So it’s a flexible muscle, has highly sensitive nerve endings, and it can interrupt your airflow since by chance we use the same tube for breathing as we do for eating. “So the tongue was exapted — evolution didn’t need to make a speaking machine from scratch.” Anderson argues that this is what the brain does. It takes a set of cognitive processes for doing one thing and it will learn how to reuse that for something totally different.
  • This leads us to shamanism, a cultivated practice for altering your state of consciousness which exapts this enhanced mindsight — this enhanced ability to manipulate and and control your mental/emotional state. The shaman is so pervasive that it’s arguably become archetypal (e.g. Yoda and Merlin are both examples of the shaman), but at the very least we know it was the best source of health care you could expect to get for a long time. (Also helps to reduce discord, enhance hunting, etc.) The shaman was central to the upper Paleolithic transition.
  • The brain has already existed for 160,000 years, it’s not changing significantly in the upper Paleolithic transition. It’s much more likely that it’s not a hardware change in the brain but a software change in how humans are using the brain. “Part of what I want to argue is that shamanism is probably playing a significant role in that software change.”
  • Psychotechnology — You’re a “natural-born cyborg” (to use Andy Clark’s phrase [see books references below]). Your brain has evolved over several species to use tools. In fact: if you start to use a tool for a short amount of time your brain starts to model it as part of your body. (e.g. when parking your car you can “feel” it as if it’s an extension of your body) Clothes, glasses, walls, shoes… they’re all tools. And the use of tools can be exacted. Your brain’s use of tools can be moved from a physical thing to a cognitive thing. Example of a psychotechnology: literacy. (Words, language) It’s a standard set of tools that can enhance your cognition. You can put words somewhere and they stay there.
  • Literacy is an example of a psychotechnology. It enhances the software of your cognitive machinery. Shamanism is a set of psychotechnologies for altering your state of consciousness and enhancing your cognition. Sleep deprivation, long hours of signing/dancing/chanting, imitation (masks, etc.), social isolation, and use psychedelics. “Disruptive strategies” for “awakening experiences.” Shamans disrupt the way you find patterns in the world.
  • The way you find patterns in the world is very profound. By projecting, unconsciously, a set of rules or patterns onto a problem you “are locked, and blocked.” You can’t solve it. [Example used is the 9-dot problem, where the solution is to literally think outside the box.] “You have to disrupt your framing in order to get an insight.” Shamans disrupt everyday framing so they can get insight into, for example, patterns in the environment. Or mindsight into other people.
  • Shamans are highly charismatic. Imagine: super rock star + super therapist + super artist → 1 individual that comes to you when you’re sick. Which can trigger in you the very effective placebo effect.
  • Shamans are practicing enhanced cognition. Notice already how much the shaman is manipulating the meaning of things. Shamans are considered wise people. (e.g. the word “wizard” means “wise person”)

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 2 (Summary & Notes)

List of Books in the Video:

  • Michael Anderson — After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain
  • Barry Boyce (Editor) — The Mindfulness Revolution: Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life
  • Andy Clark — Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence
  • Michel Ferrari and Nic Weststrate (Editors) — The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom: From Contemplative Traditions to Neuroscience
  • Harry Frankfurt — On Bullsh*t
  • David Lewis-Williams — The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art
  • L. A. Paul — Transformative Experience
  • Massimo Pigliucci — How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life
  • Matt Rossano — Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved
  • Daniel Siegel — Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
  • Steve Taylor — Waking From Sleep: Why Awakening Experiences Occur and How to Make Them Permanent
  • John Vervaeke, Christopher Mastropietro, and Filip Miscevic — Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis
  • Michael Winkelman — Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing
  • Susan Wolf — Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

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