The 11th Problem of Consciousness

Part 1: A naturalistic framework for understanding transcendent experiences.

Posted Jan 31, 2020

Do you not sometimes wish to be free of the prison cell of your own ego?

This blog was co-authored with Professor John Vervaeke*, and the quote is from the 11th Episode of Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.

According to Buddhist mythology, Siddhārtha Gautama was a sheltered prince who was protected by the King from the injuries and degradations of life until he ventured out from his palace as a young man. Outside the confines of his controlled environment, he was powerfully confronted by life’s limitations, frailties, and entrapments. His first reaction was horror and aversion, and he sought various avenues for resisting pain and decay. However, despite his best efforts, he could not achieve control and find a path to escape the inevitable slings and arrows that life brings. Over time his consciousness—by that we mean his way of being in the world—was transformed.

The mythos that grounds the Buddhist tradition is that over a six-year period of deep meditation, contemplation, and exploration regarding the causes of suffering and the meaning of life, Siddhārtha achieved profound series of insights that would ultimately result in him given the title of the Buddha, which means the “awakened one.” To borrow from Eric Fromm, we can describe his transformation as transitioning from the having mode, with its focus on material comforts and fears of pain and loss, into the being mode of presence, awareness, acceptance, and a transcendental sense of oneness with the world.

In addition to acknowledging the dramatic impact this mythos has had on humanity across the ages, as scientists of the mind we find the narrative fascinating. Particularly relevant to us is that it points to a remarkable feature of human consciousness. It suggests that it is feasible to undergo a significant and dramatic transformation; a phase shift in how one’s experiences oneself and the world. Research has documented that, in fact, these experiences with “higher forms” of consciousness do occur with a fair degree of regularity. Available data suggests that approximately 30 to 40 percent of people will report having at least one transformational experience that they identify as a higher state of consciousness that has a significant impact on how they see the world and live their lives.

We find the “onto-normativity” of such transformational and transcendental experiences captivating, and we refer to it here as “the 11th problem of consciousness.” We are labeling it as such in a specific reference to this blog, authored by Dr. Henriques, on the 10 problems of consciousness, which maps the complicated issues associated with defining and thinking about consciousness (see also here). Although the problem of altered states was listed in problem domain #3, the transformational experiences of higher consciousness were not adequately referenced. As such, this two-part blog can be considered an extended entry on the 11th problem on the list.

The reality of such experiences of higher consciousness and their relevance for addressing the modern meaning crisis is a central theme of Dr. Vervaeke’s popular YouTube lecture series, "Awakening from the Meaning Crisis." Coincidentally, the scientific problem of explaining higher-order consciousness transformations was the topic of the 11th episode in this series. Thus, we are using this fortuitous coincidence to take the opportunity to link our perspectives together and to frame the onto-normativity problem as the 11th problem of consciousness.

John Vervaeke
Source: John Vervaeke

The reason it is a problem that warrants much careful reflection is systematically laid out in Dr. Vervaeke’s lecture (see also episode 12). The problem is that not only do these transformational experiences happen with a fair degree of regularity in a way that manifests as a consistent pattern, but they also raise profound theoretical questions as to what exactly is happening in such states and why.

To understand the problem, consider what happens in most altered states of consciousness. We can start by considering how people tend to react after experiencing altered states in a dream or a drunk state of confusion. These altered states are generally dismissed by individuals as being aberrant and distorted. As such, they are generally seen as being illusory or “less real,” as they are referenced against normal waking consciousness and not seen as relevant.

Transformational experiences are different. Although these are also altered states of consciousness that are least somewhat discontinuous from everyday wakefulness, they are interpreted as more real rather than less real for the individual. That is, after such experiences the individual will report experiencing a meaningful transformation in how they see themselves, the world, and their relationship to it. Moreover, research has confirmed that these events are followed by documentable changes in many aspects of people’s lives, and people will regularly make arduous changes in their lifestyles to maintain contact with the reality experienced during the altered state they experienced as transcendental.

All of this raises fascinating scientific and humanistic questions. Namely, from the vantage point of human psychology and cognitive science, we can ask questions such as: What is happening, descriptively, to people in these states? Do we have models of human cognition and consciousness that can enable us to understand the change processes that are operative? Moreover, why are these processes so transformative? This raises the challenge of accounting for them prescriptively, which consists of explaining why people find these experiences to be that they legitimately authorize the transformations that take place in their lives in the wake of them.

Addressing this question gives rise to another, even more active prescription. We believe that the modern societal and academic institutions need ways of cultivating awareness of such experiences and fostering practices that enable them. We believe they connect deeply to the wisdom traditions of the Axial age and that a key solution to the modern meaning crisis involves connecting to the practices—if not the literal beliefs—of those traditions. In short, we need to move society so that it is structured to cultivate and benefit from higher conscious experiences that are transformational.

We believe modern human psychology and cognitive science can give at least the outline both of a descriptive and prescriptive account of the 11th problem of consciousness. That is, modern integrative models of the human mind can account both for why these experiences exhibit the features that they do and why they reveal crucial aspects of the human experience that the modern world would do well to take seriously. The remainder of this blog will map our model of the human mind, which will set the stage for our account in Part II of this series as to why transformational experiences have the features they do and why they are so crucial for how we understanding wisdom and the realization of meaning.

Dr. Henriques’ unified theory of psychology offers a new map of the human mind and does so in a way that is highly consistent with the integrative vision of Cognitive Science held by Dr. Vervaeke. The model starts with a broad definition of the mind as referencing the information instantiated within and processed by the nervous system.

Anchored to this basic neurocognitive functionalist conception of the mind, the unified framework argues that we can identify three broad domains of human mental activity as follows: 1) Overt action, which refers to the observable functional patterns of awareness and response that take place between the individual and the environment; 2) Subjective phenomenology, which refers to the first experience of feeling; and 3) Language-based justification, which plays a key role in self-reflective consciousness and propositional thinking. As described in this blog, these domains of human mental behavior are then linked together via the concept of “informational interface.” The core organizing concept of the mind in the unified framework is called “Behavioral Investment Theory.” It posits that the nervous system is an investment value system that coordinates the expenditure of work effort toward particular outcomes on an “bio-energy economic cost-benefit” ratio. It is worth noting that all of this is embedded in a larger scientific humanistic framework

Via a broad and integrative view of Cognitive Science, Dr. Vervaeke maps human knowing via the following four “p's”: 1) procedural knowing; 2) perspectival knowing; 3) propositional knowing; and 4) participatory knowing. Procedural knowing refers knowing how to enact a procedure, such as tying one’s shoe. Perspectival knowing is via embodied perception. It consists of seeing the world and one’s place in it via a specific point of view. Propositional knowing relates to knowing via language. It includes knowledge of facts and logic and it enables reasoning and argumentation. These three kinds of knowing line up well with the three kinds of memory systems found in humans (i.e., procedural, episodic, and semantic), as described by this blog.

The fourth kind of knowing is participatory. This is, in some ways, the most basic and dynamic kind of knowing. It refers to the complex interplay between the agent and arena. It involves “doing,” but not in a simple procedural sense, but rather in a creative and enacting sense. A good way to think about participatory knowledge is to think about the difference between being in a state of confusion versus a state of flow. Flow is when you are in a groove and feel a natural “dance” between your actions and the environment. It is when this agent-arena relationship coheres such that you are able to intuit what is relevant, anticipate what is next, and realize outcomes that are desired with little or no self-doubt or hesitation.

Imagine two people who go to a party. The first enters the party, knows several people, feels comfortable and moves from conversation to conversation. She has a great time, meets new people, discovers new things, and the evening is over before she even realizes it. The second is anxious, knows no one, hopes that it will go well, but fears it will not. As soon as she enters the party, she is over-whelmed and stays in a corner feeling self-conscious. The fifteen minutes she is there feels like two hours.

The first was in a participatory flow state. The second simply had no idea how to participate in that arena. This conception of participatory knowledge can be directly aligned with Behavioral Investment Theory. Good participatory flow aligns with patterns of good return on one’s investment of effort, where the individual is identifying what is relevant and is in an effective dynamic interaction with the environment.

We believe these ideas set the stage for a scientific account for what might be happening when individuals experience higher states of consciousness. Part II of this blog will elaborate on Dr. Vervaeke’s “continuity” formulation that links the concepts of fluency, insight, flow, and transformational experiences, all grounded in a participatory knowledge framework.  

Part II is here.

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John Vervaeke
Source: John Vervaeke

*Dr. John Vervaeke is an Assistant Professor, in the teaching stream. He has been teaching at the University of Toronto since 1994. He currently teaches courses in the Psychology department on thinking and reasoning with an emphasis on insight problem solving, cognitive development with an emphasis on the dynamical nature of development, and higher cognitive processes with an emphasis on intelligence, rationality, mindfulness, and the Psychology of wisdom. He also teaches courses in the Cognitive Science program on the introduction to Cognitive Science, and the Cognitive Science of consciousness. In addition, he teaches a course in the Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health program on Buddhism and Cognitive Science. He is the director of the Consciousness and the Wisdom Studies Laboratory. He has won and been nominated for several teaching awards including the 2001 Students' Administrative Council and Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students Teaching Award for the Humanities, and the 2012 Ranjini Ghosh Excellence in Teaching Award. He has published articles on relevance realization, general intelligence, mindfulness, flow, metaphor, and wisdom. He is first author of the book Zombies in Western Culture: A 21st Century Crisis, which integrates Psychology and Cognitive Science to address the meaning crisis in Western society. He is the author and presenter of the YouTube series, "Awakening from the Meaning Crisis."