POST 18 – 1-09-2014

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An article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times discusses an experience that author Sam Harris has mentioned in his new book “Waking Up”. I have known this as a “peak experience” which is a special state of consciousness sometimes seen as akin to what religious people sometimes call a religious experience. Harris distinguishes between the religious and the non-religious interpretation of such experiences.

Bruni asks:

“The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?”

Peak experiences are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of such events is lasting and people often liken them to a spiritual experience.

Other experts describe peak experiences in the following ways:

  • “Peak experiences involve a heightened sense of wonder, awe, or ecstasy over an experience.” (Privette, “Defining moments of self-actualization: Peak performance and peak experience,” 2001)
  • “…a highly valued experience which is characterized by such intensity of perception, depth of feeling, or sense of profound significance as to cause it to stand out, in the subject’s mind, in more or less permanent contrast to the experiences that surround it in time and space.” (Leach, “Meaning and Correlates of Peak Experience,” 1962)      My study of the mental activities that go into the development of “premes” and “nemes” has led me to consider whether or not we have sufficient control of these processes to allow us to intervene and perhaps consciously collaborate in the mixture of unconscious and conscious activity. If the process can be consciously accessed we need to identify how this is done. There are things like Concentration Exercises for Training the Mind and many more such self-improvement programs.Similarly we should recognise the crude method of mind control called brain-washing. Brainwashing is hardly a perfect science, but is effective in some situations. What is going on in such a case? Our educational systems are quite effective but I suggest there are deficiencies in our knowledge of the mental processes were are attempting to influence.I want to know more about what is going on in there so that various known methods of improvement can be bettered and perhaps new interventions can be discovered and developed.We have developed methods of maximising the possibility of successful thought processes by seeking evidence of reality and we use reason to understand the significance of that reality.How much of our decision making is actually intuitive? Most of our day to day decisions are intuitive. Intuition is the outcome of the biologically evolved process that we have inherited.Logical methods are only reliable if they are applied to correct first premises. If the starting point is rubbish the outcome will be rubbish. Rubbish in, rubbish out, as the computer people say.This leads me to look at clearly intentional intervention in the mental processes. In my blog Post 12 on the topic I said:
  • In suggesting the use of the terms neme and preme I am recognising the relationship between the genetic process, or Darwinian evolution, and the process of nerve impulse formation. Nerve impulses are transmitted through synapses and neurones and lead to the development of memories that are mental models of the outside world.
  • There is nothing wrong with intuition as long as it is applied by the trained and experienced mind, but a decision made intuitively needs to be conveyed to other minds so needs to be developed by association with evidence and logic.
  • How often do we apply that process?
  • The process goes on whether or not we intervene and ideas are formed anyway. Our intervention could be unintended or intentional. Unintended intervention in the process goes on anyway unless we set out to control them. The unintended consequences may be undesirable because they are uncontrolled. When we are actively using our mind, having ideas and making decisions we may be having negative influences on the process and the outcomes. If our mind is occupied by bread and circuses or the modern equivalent of cooking shows, internet trivia and ubiquitous entertainment, then decisions are more likely to be based on unplanned mental processes and unintended consequences are perhaps even more likely.
  • Those ways of intervention may be passive or active and going with the flow may be one of the passive ways. Meditation, adopting a positive or optimistic outlook, exercising discipline and the like will improve our chances of developing new ideas or insights. Without understanding the neme process and the process that leads to formation of a preme – that bright idea or that creative thought – leaves us still victims of the mental confusion that is the babble of our stream of consciousness.
  • There is also the concept of Flow –as in go with the flow. This is a proposal that is attractive but does not answer my problem which seeks to clarify ways of intervention in the creative process.
  • There are a number of approaches suggested by what I consider rather superficial things such as the following list of “success skills” Positive Thinking, Visualization, Affirmations, Motivation, Willpower and Self Discipline, Power of Concentration and Peace of Mind.
  • If the mental process leading to the development of a significant preme were totally unconscious then we should just study hard, identify intellectual problems, speculate on answers to the problems and hope something pops into our mind and that we will recognise it as significant.
  • A preme is significant if it is a new one, a creative idea, that, when released into the culture has some significant effect.
  • A meme, according to a recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is “an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means”. A meme may be an idea or an artefact. I have suggested that a meme originates as a creative idea in someone’s mind and I have called that type of idea a “preme” – a precursor of a meme. And a nervous impulse that is the precursor of a preme I call a “neme”.
  • I work backwards from the product of the creative process, namely the meme.
  • The idea of self-actualisation led me back to my thoughts on conscious intervention in mental processes as an aid to creativity. How do you get to be self-actualised and how do you get to be able to intervene in the largely automatic thinking process?
  • Maslow described self-actualizers as those who feel finally themselves, safe, not anxious, accepted, loved, loving, and alive, certainly living a fulfilling life.
  • “Maslow defined lengthy, willfully induced peak experiences (plateau experiences) as a characteristic of the self-actualized. He described it as a state of witnessing or cognitive blissfulness, the achievement of which requires a lifetime of long and hard effort, and also self-actualization”.
  • This concept has been developed by Abraham H. Maslow who spoke of willfully induced peak experiences.
  • Even if the process or the environment is not modified the process still goes on.
  • Omission and commission are both interventions and have attendant risks.
  • Allowing error to continue is an intervention.
  • Both change aversion and progressive approaches are forms of interventions.
  • Laissez faire is an intervention

In short – the process will go on whatever we do, so we should manipulate these memes to better attend to our human needs and seek to add to human fruitfulness. This is how we contribute to the civilising project. We cannot neglect it. We must act or the process.

We need to know how to do this and so we need to study the mechanics of the process and invent ways of active intervention. Our educational methods could be improved by further knowledge of the mental process and how it works at the level of: