The year was 1177 B.C.
The Bronze Age collapse was underway, marking the greatest demise in the history of civilization. This led to the Dark Age, where alchemical seeds of future thought took root.
Small remnant societies barely clung to survival, placing huge demands on cognition. What emerged from this age were mental tools forever transforming our ability to think and communicate.
This pivotal moment in history came to be known as the Axial Age. Before this age, literacy was rare, with clunky characters lacking the versatility of the modern alphabet we now take for granted. This bluntness put a harsh limit on the range of thoughts that could be conveyed. Imagine having to express modern ideas, from physics to philosophy, with only the characters below.
Though aesthetic, the characters are too obtuse for modern use. The learning curve was steep, making literacy a full-time job for scribes of old, the diligent bookkeepers of state. It wasn’t until the Ancient Greeks and Hebrews that alphabetic literacy would emerge.
Paring down from 1,000 Hieroglyphics to 26 letters cut the learning curve, increasing fluency. Writing became catchy and useful, and literacy went viral. More readers increased our distributed cognition, expanding personal and cultural development. This same feedback loop continues today, ever clarifying and sharpening our thought.
Alphabetic literacy is the first tool needed for modern thought. The second is numeracy, earned through our use of coinage. From feeding Roman soldiers to trading on the Silk Road, humanity placed further demands on symbolic abstraction.
While some trained arithmetic by bringing goods to market, others wrote, edited, and shared ideas in ever-faster loops, giving birth to second-order thinking.
Practice makes perfect
As literacy and numeracy matured, we began to internalize them into the fabric of our cognition. Like a new pair of glasses, at first you’re hyper-aware of them, but before long, you see through them natively, and deploy your new vision toward greater ends. Similarly, our new mental lenses became our cognitive grammar, and we viewed the world through them.
Now ripe, these tools were recycled for every purpose. Just as our tongue was repurposed, from moving food to making speech, literacy flowed from palaces to public squares, while numeracy spread from markets to laboratories.
Climbing the ladder of Abstraction
When we hear the word “technology,” we think of devices that solve problems. The word is used in Cognitive Science to describe our mental toolkit. Literacy and numeracy are examples of these tools, known as psychotechnologies.
There are three groups of psychotechnologies that work in concert: mental, embodied, and pharmacological. They’re used to achieve insight, self-transcendence, and the cultivation of wisdom.
Let’s describe psychotechnologies with clear examples:
1.) Mental psychotech includes speech, literacy, numeracy, metaphor, meditation, and spiritual practices.
2.) Embodied psychotech includes fasting, sensory isolation, sleep deprivation, binaural beats, accupressure, breathing techniques, yoga, martial arts, and other forms of exercise.
3.) Pharmacological psychotech are compounds that modify cognition, from nootropics like L-theanine and gingko biloba, to caffeine, cannabis, psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and many others.
Potent psychotechnologies should be carefully introduced under the guidance of experts. Milder ones can be combined to create an ecology of practices that balance the trade-offs of each.
Combinations offer an integral experience with emergent benefits. Take an easy example: L-theanine, fasting, and group yoga while listening to binaural beats. The ecology produces effects that simpler practices can’t match.
Dr. Thomas Roberts, a psychologist at Northern Illinois University, has expressed curiosity about future research combining hypnosis, psilocybin, and deep breathing. He follows with a firm caveat: exploration of this space must be undertaken with caution. John Vervaeke also cautions that, while opposing prohibition, he doesn’t advocate recreational use. You don’t play around with chain saws. These are powerful tools to be used with care and skill.
While care is needed, there’s good reason to be excited about the future of these practices. The early scientific work is promising. Several studies show lasting personal meaning and spiritual significance following mystical experiences resulting from psilocybin. Cancer patients who undergo psychedelic experiences also report being more at peace with death.
How does mystical experience change the brain?
In our normal state, we can’t multitask. We use particularization to detect nuance, or compression to notice larger patterns.
Psilocybin complexifies the brain through multitasking: simultaneous compression and particularization. This broadens the scope of cognition.
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
Psilocybin’s ability to complexify the brain is at odds with the Freudian single-state fallacy. It asserts that “all worthwhile mental processing occurs in our usual awake mindbody state.” While Freud knew the importance of dreams, he saw them as mere handmaidens to conscious thought.
The model had to expand because it left out processes like insight and the flow state.
Insight is an increase in mental fluency. Bordering the conscious and unconscious, insight can be abstract or physical: we suddenly “get” how to scale a rock face or solve a math problem.
The half-unconscious nature of insight is evident when trying to explain how we came to our solution: we can’t explain the logical steps we took to make the connection. Insight occurs when we’re in the flow state, deeply engaged and in the zone.
To see the mechanics of insight, it helps to see how neural networks learn to increase their performance.
Take the Regular network above. It’s robust, with exhaustive connections between neighboring nodes. To maximize robustness, it sacrifices efficiency, giving it a high average distance between nodes. The Regular network is a cold logic machine. If you’re in a supermarket, asking it to find soap, it wouldn’t use shortcuts. It searches the whole problem space and eventually arrives at “aisle 9.”
The Random network on the right is the opposite, with a low mean path distance, but a brittle setup. Damage ruins it because it lacks redundancy. But it’s fast. Soap? “Aisle 9.” Nice.
The Small World network is the best of both worlds, with a lower path distance than the Regular network and way more robustness than the Random network. Tough and insightful.
You can visualize insight by disconnecting a link from its neighbor and connecting two nodes that couldn’t previously talk to one another. The Small World network did this three times. The brain on psilocybin does this millions of times.
From Insight to High Performance
Often, neural nets will pick up patterns that don’t generalize to the real world. This is called over-fitting. To prevent this, networks are disrupted: they’re shown random data — digital psilocybin — that improves detection of relevant data patterns.
The goal is identical for humans and networks: introduce enough disruption to achieve insight, but not so much that we lose general problem solving ability. Flow is the gateway to insight.
Insight Problem Solving
Imagine a young student is tasked with solving the 9 Dot problem. Here’s the rule: intersect 9 dots using 4 consecutive straight lines. This seemingly impossible task requires creative thinking to complete, shown in the trials below.
As the student works, they can over-fit until they’re unable to come up with the key insight allowing them to solve the problem.
By stepping away and doing something unrelated— playing a game, taking a nap, socializing — they arrive at the insight needed to solve the problem. They break the imaginary box that their left-brain superimposed on a bunch of dots.
We find creative solutions to hard problems while fully engaged in unrelated activities. Flow states make us insightful by helping us digest problems unconsciously. We can’t brute force our way to insight. Rather, insight works best in the background, processing info while we’re otherwise engaged.
Lost Ways of Knowing
All human abilities exist in four kinds of knowing — Propositional, Perspectival, Procedural, and Participatory. Here’s a quick breakdown.
Propositional: knowing that energy and mass are equivalent.
Perspectival: knowing what it’s like to see Earth from the Moon.
Procedural: Knowing how to compose a symphony.
Participatory: Knowing how to coordinate with your team to win the NBA Championship.
Think of Lebron James. When he plays basketball, he demonstrates genius in participatory and procedural realms. On game night, he transcends the limits of his own — and his team’s — abilities, reshaping the way basketball can be played. Lebron changes basketball and basketball changes him in a reciprocal way. Legends permanently change the agent-arena relationship, whether in physics, music, or basketball.
We use the 4 kinds of knowing to solve our problems. But we’re only able to measure some of these abilities. To see how, we’ll take a quick look what IQ tests measure.
A dash of Psychometrics
Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Over the last century, we’ve honed our ability to test problem-solving ability with IQ tests. Jean Piaget, a psychologist I wrote about previously, was instrumental in the creation of these tests. He discovered that young children make reliable, systematic errors at different stages of development.
IQ tests use a variety of problems broken down into 12 subtests: Vocabulary, Matrix Reasoning, Symbol Search, Digit Span, etc. The tests are combined to give an integral score, g, which is normally distributed in the human population with a mean of 100. The mean is continually re-standardized, as average scores rose through the 20th century, a phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect. The scores have since stabilized, recently dipping below their peak in the mid 1990's.
Of all the sub-tests, Vocabulary correlates highest with g (.83), hinting that numeracy rests on a linguistic bedrock.
The road to wisdom
Much like Regular networks, pure intelligence is inefficient because it lacks relevance. All the firepower in the world won’t help if you have bad aim — boiling the ocean to solve every problem is cognitively suicidal.
In addition to intelligence, we must become rational, being economical with our cognition by learning what to ignore. Rationality guides the machinery of intelligence towards what’s relevant. To move beyond intelligence toward rationality, we turn our machinery back on our own cognition to upgrade it.
With enough time spent— under the tutelage of masters — we continue these dialogues internally, a process called internalizing the sage. The deeper our practice, the less foolish we become.
Rationality is a cognitive virus scan, honing relevance and ejecting bullshit from our awareness. When this scan starts running in the background, you’re developing the machinery of wisdom.
Wisdom is a process, an ecology of psychotechnologies, that dynamically constrain and optimize each other, enhancing our capacity to realize relevance in a deep way.
“How do I know if I’m doing it right?”
Here’s how: you won’t consider foolish things salient anymore. Wisdom solves problems by helping you realize relevance and ignore bullshit.
Things that don’t matter will evaporate from your salience landscape. You’ll ignore the irrelevant, being ever tempted toward the good. You’ll gain enhanced capacity to build a life of flourishing. You’ll recognize new opportunities for insight. You’ll understand by grasping significance.
You’ll be able to know, far beyond propositions. You’ll know through participating. You’ll know by being. Wisdom offers protection from nonsense: a dynamical system that counteracts the machinery of self deception.
If wisdom scales globally, we’ll see the creation of elegant systems that far outlive our species.
“Man is something that shall be overcome. Man is a rope, tied between beast and superman— a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
“Something happened here that was formative of us” - John Vervaeke