December 18, 2019
What does it mean to lead a meaningful life? How do we find meaning in a modern context? Are we in the midst of a "meaning crisis"? Answering such profound questions is no easy task, but in this episode, we speak to several guests who are diving into the deep end and trying to do just that. First, we speak with Dr. Fabienne Picard, a neurologist at the University Hospital of Geneva, about using ecstatic seizures to scientifically study the feeling of meaning and what occurs physiologically during these moments. Then, we hear Dr. Tayyab Rashid, a clinical psychologist at the Health and Wellness Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough, discuss how he uses positive psychology in his clinical practice to help people achieve a sense of well-being. Finally, we sat down with Dr. John Vervaeke, an associate professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto, to hear all about zombies, the "meaning crisis", and to get a more philosophical perspective on meaning and how to live a more meaningful life. So join us as we tackle these profound questions, and explore the science, psychology, and the philosophy of meaning and wellbeing. And hopefully you find something meaningful in our exploration!
Written by: Amber-Anne Mullin
Various Speakers It's very commonly said that the root of most human unhappiness is one life has no meaning. And so what would satisfy us as being meaning behind this world? ... Say if you said, You know what, I'm going to enjoy the day. This is going to be a good day. ... Creativity, decisiveness passion, honesty, sincerity, love. These are the ultimate human resources. ... You are great! You are magnificent! You can do what ever you want to do in this world. ... And when you engage these resources, you can get any other resource on Earth. ... Most of the things that we want very fervently are things that we've only half glimpsed. Our ideals are very often suggestions, hints, and we don't know really exactly what we mean when you think about it. ... When you say, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, over and over again, you tell yourself a story. You begin to believe that story. ... Don't let yourself your dreams be dreams. Yesterday, you said tomorrow. ... Just do it! ... We have to pursue that question further too: why is it that a plan, why is it that fellowship with other people gives the sense of meaning?
Stephanie Nishi As 2019 draws to a close, our team at Raw Talk has been reflecting on the year that has passed. It can be easy to get caught up in the everyday hustle and bustle and lose sight of what motivates us. As grad students and members of the podcast, we ourselves sometimes find we lose sight of why we do what we do, and this can affect our wellbeing. On today's episode, we wanted to take a deep dive into meaning and wellbeing. What does it mean to find meaning, and how do we find it and integrate it into our lives? We invite you to join us as we explore the science, psychology, and philosophy behind meaning and well being. I'm Stephanie
Aditi Desai And I'm Aditi.
Stephanie Nishi Welcome to Episode 71 of Raw Talk.
Aditi Desai Before we begin, we want to invite all of you wonderful listeners out there to please fill out our 2019 Raw Talk listener feedback survey that has just been released across all of our social media platforms. It will only take a few minutes of your time, and your feedback on how our show is doing and how we can improve will be invaluable to us. And as a token of our appreciation after filling out the survey, you will get the chance to enter a draw to win some awesome prizes, including our brand new Raw Talk tote bags, three gift cards to RYU worth $50 each, and a Muse headset. Check out our social media accounts for the link to the survey.
Stephanie Nishi Okay, now back to today's episode. In our exploration of meaning, we will learn about ecstatic seizures, achieving wellbeing, finding a flow state, addressing the rise of a meaning crisis, and zombies. We were joined by our first guest today all the way from Switzerland, to hear about her unique research. Dr. Fabienne Picard is a neurologist and senior consultant in the EEG and epilepsy unit at the neurology department at the University Hospital of Geneva. Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to experience even a moment of complete self awareness and serenity associated with feeling like you fully understand the universe and your place in it? In the first part of today's episode, we wanted to begin by taking a brain anatomy centered approach to the study of meaning and the feeling of well being. Dr. Picard taught us about ecstatic epileptic seizures, a way in which it may be possible to scientifically study a sense of meaning, and what occurs in our body during times of increased awareness and presence in the moment.
Dr. Fabienne Picard In the case of an ecstatic aura, the patient feels a sudden state of bliss and complete serenity. This wonderful state seems to be related to a sudden dive into the present moment. There is a complete centeredness on the present moment, with the ability to contemplate everything without any judgment, as well as an absolute absence of worries. And the patients use different terms to describe the state of ecstasy. They speak about revelation or an epiphany, an understanding or hyper reality or a state of clarity. And I would like to add that during this ecstatic epileptic seizures, the patients feel an increased sense of self, an increased self awareness, and often much more vivid perception of the external world, with more colors, more details, and they may report a sense of union with the universe. They say that they suddenly understand everything, the meaning of life, that everything is straightforward and beautiful. But it is important to, to bear in mind that an epileptic seizure is a dynamic process, which can spread out to other parts of the brain, and that says a patient may have convulsions immediately after the ecstatic aura. In other words, the term ecstatic is related to the very beginning of the seizure.
Aditi Desai Neurons in our brain are hyper excitable during a seizure, and they spontaneously synchronize together to fire at the same time. An example of this that we often think or hear about is when a seizure occurs and the motor cortex, which then causes a person to involuntarily shake or move. To better understand ecstatic seizures, and what we can learn about meaning and well being from them, let's hear more about the neuro cognitive processes underlying this specific type of seizure. So where does it all begin? In a small region of the brain called the insula.
Dr. Fabienne Picard The insula has many roles, but the main function of the insula is the interoception. The posterior insula is a location where all the internal signals arrive from the inside of the body, from the heart from the respiration, the bladder, the stomach.
Stephanie Nishi interoception, as Dr. Picard tells us, is our sense of what is happening in our body or physiological state. External signals from our environment will shape and provide context for these internal signals within the anterior insula. In other words, we will interpret these external signals in the form of emotions and feelings through the insula. Interoception helps us understand what's happening in our own bodies. How does our brain anticipate external signals based on our previous experiences though? Dr. Picard explains that the area predictive coding, which understands the brain to function as a predictive machine, and not just a passive receiver of environmental cues.
Dr. Fabienne Picard well, the brain is always anticipating the signals which are arriving from the external world, and from the inside of the body by predictions, which are also these quite top-down signals. And when the real incoming signal arrives, so when's the bottom-up outcome is received by the brain, the prediction and the real signal will be compared them and the mismatch, the difference, will give rise to the production a prediction error and this prediction error will allow to update the next prediction. So, there is a sort of cycle with always a prediction made by the brain, a real signal arriving, a comparison between real signal and the prediction, giving rise to a prediction error, and then an update of the next prediction. The aim of the brain is to have the future predictions the closest possible to the real signals which are arising up to minimize the surprise and to minimize energetic expenditure.
Aditi Desai Now that we have a better understanding of the normal function of the insula and the regular occurrence of predictive errors, let's circle back to the role, or rather the abnormal function of the anterior insula in ecstatic seizures.
Dr. Fabienne Picard So Because of this abnormal functioning of the insula during the seizure, there cannot be prediction errors in the field of interoception. This would be equivalent to an absence of mismatch between the predictions and the incoming signals in the field of interoception, and therefore, in the field of emotions. In other words, there would be a complete absence, of surprise, of conflict in the physiological state of the body, which is the case in our daily life and the positive emotions which are described by the patients are probably secondary to the stability the state of the body, and to the consequence center- centeredness on the present moment. So, I don't think that the ecstatic epileptic seizure have primarily positive emotions, but these positive emotions are related to, to this state of, of the body without any surprise.
Aditi Desai Although, of course, we will not all experience and ecstatic seizure for comparison, we're all continuously coming up against different magnitudes of prediction errors between what we expect and what actually occurs. How large these errors are, and how we respond to them differs between individuals and might provide insight into that person's sense of well being.
Dr. Fabienne Picard We used to believe that the perception of the external world was passive perception of stable, external world which would have been the same for everyone. We know now that our past experiences play a role in the predictions we make about the immediate future and that these past experiences will influence and shape our perceptions. So, the interpretation of the external world will depend actually on the selection of our predictions best fitting together, but our predictions play a major role in our perceptions. And these predictions which are continuously updated, participate, as well as the real incoming signals for perceptions, so I insists a little bit. Some also even say our emotions, our feelings and our sense of wellness, self consciousness, are actually the result of the succession of interoceptive prediction, predictions rather than the result of the succession of the real incoming interceptive signals. So it's interesting to, to know that our, our self consciousness is not the result of, of what arrives but also of what we predict.
Stephanie Nishi It is quite fascinating that we can use neuroscience and the study of static epileptic seizures to help us towards understanding the neuro basis of self awareness, wellbeing, and positive emotions. However, what does this mean for us in our day to day lives? The human experience of increasing self awareness and finding meaning and purpose is one that is universal, yet unique to each of us. One field of study aims to help people to find meaning in their lives by prioritizing wellbeing: The field of positive psychology. Although it is a relatively new field, it has attracted a lot of interest. We spoke with Dr. Tayyab Rashid, a clinical psychologist at the Health and Wellness Center at the University of Toronto Scarborough and president of the clinical division of the International Positive Psychology Association. Dr. Rashid spoke with us about how he uses positive psychology and his clinical practice to help people achieve a sense of wellbeing. But first, what exactly is positive psychology? Dr. Rashid begins by describing positive psychology using the acronym PERMA.
Dr. Tayyab Rashid Positive Psychology deconstructs wellbeing as less of happiness but more of wellbeing into five elements: P stands for positive emotions, E for engagement, which is synonymous with flow, states of deep absorption, R for relationships, they are fundamental, one of the most important predictors of our wellbeing, now actually also predictors of our mortality and lots of health status indices, P positive emotions, E engagement, R relationship, M meaning, as I said is pursuit of meaning, and last one is accomplishment. But accomplishment not bigger, people miss- sometimes misconstrue them accomplishment not for external rewards, extrinsic motivations necessarily, but using your strengths, using your own intrinsic motivation to do something to pursue goals which unfolds your potential for the betterment of your own wellbeing and of others. I will ask our listeners, anyone among our listener, listeners who is completely a saint, or who's completely a sinners, those states don't exist. We are a curious and complex mix of positive and negative, Yin and Yang. In my view, positive psychology is a process of bringing the best out of people. It's of people, of individuals, of communities, and it is setting the things which are right and ripe for people to be able to flourish.
Stephanie Nishi So it sounds like it's a reframing of what we may think of as traditional psychology in terms of wellbeing more so looking at, like you said, the flourishing side.
Dr. Tayyab Rashid Yes, it's reframing in a sense that, I don't want to give this notion, although it's called positive psychology, the rest of psychology is negative. Psychiatry, psychology, social work, and many other healing professions have done tremendous work in terms of making ourselves manage our stresses better. We have a number of clinical conditions for which we have empirically based treatments. But why positive psychology is important in terms of reframing is it is expanding the frames. It is adding the lens in that frame of wellness, that if we were looking at human beings traditionally from a deficit-based frame, as damaged goods, as people who have genetic accidents, and that they were destined to have anxiety, depression because of biological underpinning, or they were, let's say cruel victim of very unfriendly socioeconomic conditions. So, psychology as a mental health field was mostly about this damage control. Genetic social economic or their interaction, but what positive psychology has brought in the lens of that: yes a person is may have a lot of injuries, but also they bring lots of assets as well.
Stephanie Nishi Although Dr. Rashid currently leads Flourish, a preventative Mental Health Initiative for students at the University of Toronto Scarborough, he first began his clinical practice working with children and families.
Dr. Tayyab Rashid I've worked in some of the toughest neighborhoods of the city, and working with the families who have very challenging circumstances. So some of my initial work was with students as a school psychologist. And I'll give an example. I was given a referral, and the teacher said, Dr. Rashid, I'm pretty sure this kid has ADHD.
Stephanie Nishi Dr. Rashid observed that this child was experiencing many challenges within the classroom setting, but he was also curious to see the child's interactions and experiences outside of the classroom.
Dr. Tayyab Rashid The most remarkable thing was he was having challenges in the classroom, but also, I had the opportunity, I wanted to also tease out his strengths, so I went to one of the play [areas] on the morning breaks. And I saw this kid. It was absolute astonishing display that, he went, it was a play break and he was leading the basketball team. And he told: you go there, you go there, you go there, you go there. He coordinated and he was, there was a leadership in him. And he knew his spatial perception was excellent.
Aditi Desai Positive Psychology, as Dr. Rashid explains, is about bringing out the best in each other, looking for and focusing on each other's strengths, as well as our own. In this spirit, he shared another inspirational heartwarming story with us. Again, it highlighted the importance of focusing on one's strengths, encouraging them to be self aware, and acknowledging those strengths to help people reach their full potential.
Dr. Tayyab Rashid I had a student, very first couple of first years of my work here. First couple of sessions, just could not look at me in the eyes. Severe social anxiety. And after building some, some moderate rapport, I asked them to tell me a, some time, some story, an act where they were very proud, and this is the story. It's a brief one. They said, I loved basketball. I was probably one of the good players, and they wrote the story, and they're telling the story without looking at me. But I was so socially shy that I could never bring myself to get the coach's attention. And one time, we were at an away game. It was the last game of the season, and one of the key player got injured, and there was no one else. The coach has no choice but to cue me to come to the court. And this is exactly I remember the words, I stepped in the coat, and hundreds of piercing eyes were looking at me. I was, I had a panic attack. But then I forgot everything, and I played, entire season I played for three minutes, and I scored three points. And those three points took my team to the next round.
Stephanie Nishi We can each find ourselves in daunting or unfamiliar circumstances where we may feel limited or incapable. But what if those exact situations which cause feelings of anxiety and fear are also those that shape how we experience happiness, and meaning in our lives? Dr. Rashid has worked with refugee families, as well as individuals who live through the 9/11 attacks. We asked him how a positive psychology approach is used when working with individuals with lived traumatic experiences.
Dr. Tayyab Rashid One of the couple of things about trauma, trauma is about crisis as well as opportunities. Of course as careful and responsible clinicians and providers, we need to be aware what is the immediate needs of the, of our patients and whatever we need to do to take care of them. Those needs, we should attend to them and there are protocols for that. I'm all for that. The only added piece that I sometimes am able to bring in working with people who have experienced trauma, if appropriate, I would may also ask them about how they have previously dealt with similar situations. Because we are, all of us and most listeners will agree with me that they have dealt with a situation and somehow or other they overcame it. So just bringing that piece of efficacy, self efficacy is, can be motivating. I'll tell you a story about trauma. In our clinic we gave strengths measure along with symptoms. And I wrote the strengths measure. And this is the first session, and the client came in and I looked at their profile then on my on my medical charts and it looked, their top strength was gratitude. And I also look at the history and it was you can name it. It had everything: young person but had experienced a multiple traumas from family turmoil to addiction issues to homelessness, and many other things. And, and I sort of scratch my head and I said, How is the gratitude your top strength, and they said to me that I went through lots of situations in my life and one time it was dead of the winter. I don't know how I reached I arrived there but I woke up and I saw people who had just passed out of drugs. And I was probably one of the youngest one around them. And it was the dead of the winter and I looked out, the sun was shining, and the sky was blue. I profusely started crying and I said to myself, if I kept on going like this, I would never see another blue sky like this. I checked out and then, long story short they found, somehow ways to to get treatment and they remarkably remarkably entered university on a scholarship and, and when they are narrating the story in this very office, and it was winter, and it was snow outside, ironically and also the sky was blue and they say, Exactly whenever I look at this blue sky, I'm reminded of that time. So tell me Dr. Rashid, why I shouldn't be grateful.
Stephanie Nishi In this episode so far, we've learned about meaning and well being through neuroscience and positive psychology lens. We wanted to shed light on another important perspective on this discussion. One that is certainly more unique for us at Raw Talk, and perhaps for you our listeners as well. We had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Dr. John Vervaeke, who is an Associate Professor in the Cognitive Science department at the University of Toronto. He also teaches courses for the Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health program. His work is on the nature of intelligence, rationality, wisdom, consciousness, mindfulness, and insight. We spoke with him to help us explore a more philosophical and cognitive understanding of meaning.
Dr. John Vervaeke So, I think the very cognitive processes that make us adaptive also make us beset to self deceptive, self destructive behavior. And what has happened is across, you know, historical and cultural context, societies has developed practices, what I call psycho technologies, these are sets of practices that fit the mind and alter cognitive behavior, and they developed ecologies of such practices, ecologies of psycho technology to address these patterns of self deceptive and self destructive behavior, and try to ameliorate them and then also to do the opposite to afford an enhanced sense of connection that can often be lost due to self deception and self destructive behavior and health. But these, they want to also enhance their sense of connectedness to themselves, to each other, and the world. And that's, that's what I ultimately think we're talking about when we're talking about meaning in life. We're using the word meaning as a metaphor for this sense of being connected in deep and significant ways.
Stephanie Nishi In the past, humans have turned to wisdom and use culturally homed practices to address this lack of meaning and life. However, Dr. Vervaeke explains that somehow our current society has lost touch with this wisdom, and has led us to what we are now facing: a meaning crisis. Dr. Vervaeke describes this meaning crisis in great detail in his YouTube series, which is fascinating and we highly suggest you check it out. We will have it linked in our episode show notes. In order to address the meaning crisis in today's society, we need a way to integrate this wisdom back into our culture.
Dr. John Vervaeke I think we generally use the term wisdom for those sets of practices that help people to deal with self deceptive, self destructive behavior and to afford the enhancement of meaning in life. Those, you know, enhancing those sense of connections. So there has to be a worldview, a worldview, that helps people model what kind of agent they should be, and model the world for it's an arena in which actions make sense. That's why if you go to a culture that you're unfamiliar with you experienced such profound cultural shock, you'll experience loneliness, you'll experience kind of a fast version of the meaning crisis. Now why is that? Because we're experiencing the kind of shock, the cultural shock in this way. Given that the this ecology of practices needs a cultural home, in order to [sic] safe, the cultivation of wisdom, we can take a look and see if we have such a worldview that legitimates and guides a set of wisdom practices. And we don't. So people people know in the west where to turn for information and knowledge, but now, if you ask them and I frequently do what where do you go for wisdom? It's like well... and they mumble, and they cough and stuff like that.
Aditi Desai Dr. Vervaeke explains that this crisis is not something an individual can ignore. These patterns of self deceptive and self destructive behavior need to be addressed. But when people try to address this crisis and an autodidactic way, it actually worsens the crisis because our efforts are tainted with our own cognitive biases. Social media plays a huge role and exacerbating the meaning crisis by making it seem like we're talking with other people interacting and connecting with others. But in reality, it is masking the fact that people are trying to deal with this wisdom famine in a lonely and fragmented manner.
Dr. John Vervaeke Given that's the case we can, like I said, we can then ask a couple questions. We could ask, how did we get here? What is the historical pathway that has led to a worldview in which we don't know how to cultivate wisdom? And here's the thing about the scientific worldview, it explains so much, but what it doesn't give us any good explanation of is how we make meaning, how how we actually do science, how we actually generate these explanations how, right? And we deeply don't understand how we pursue the truth if we can't understand how we cultivate meaning, and how we find our agency within that meaning making. And so this is what people are struggling with. And this is why sort of truth has become such a contentious issue for us. So you can ask historical questions of how did we get here? And then you can also ask cognitive scientific questions. What is this meaning making machinery? Let's try and bring the best cognitive science we can to bear on that. So maybe we can explain it in such a way that we can then refit it back into a solid scientific worldview and then start once again talking in a collective way, guided by our best scientific knowledge of what it would mean to cultivate wisdom and meaning and human life.
Stephanie Nishi In Dr. Vervaeke's YouTube series we mentioned earlier, he explains that one of the reasons we have gotten to this point is because of an increasing sense of bullshit in our society. What is this bullshit exactly in our day to day lives, and how is it making us withdraw from reality and ultimately contributing to our lack of meaning?
Dr. John Vervaeke Excellent question. [laughs] So, the notion that I use is inspired by Harry Frankfurt's seminal work: his essay on bullshit. And so he laid down the basic idea, and then I do some implications of it. I think they're fairly obvious implications. So I don't I can't actually see him in any way disagreeing with what I'm saying. So that's why I attributed this ultimately to him. So Frankfurt makes a distinction between the liar and the bullshit artist and his distinction is that the liar, the liar depends on a shared commitment to the truth. So the liar depends on the fact that you care about the truth in order to try and manipulate your behavior. They tell you something that isn't true, as if it is true, so that your commitment to the truth will alter your behavior. So, although lying is evil, I'm not trying to excuse it. And it's pernicious, right? And it destroys trust and all of those very important things. I'm not ignoring any of that. But the thing about the liar is he's, he or she is at least still committed to the value of truth. And in fact, lying depends on it. But the bullshit artists works differently, according to Frankfurt. The bullshit artist tries to get you to be indifferent as to whether or not something is true. They try to get it so that you're not caring about whether or not it's true. And that's how they're trying to direct your behavior. So I looked at that and I said, Well, what is the bullshit artists doing? Like, how are they motivating your behavior? And this is where I think it's important to realize that a lot of our behavior isn't driven just by our beliefs, a lot of our behavior is driven by what's happening within our conscious perspective. So for example, let me give this example: you watch this commercial where people are drinking alcohol, right? And, the person is happy and healthy and there's all these beautiful people around them and that's not what it's like in the bar. It's just not like that. And you know, it's not like that. And you know that alcohol actually makes you feel miserable the next day and destruct. So you don't believe what you're seeing? Right. But the point is, what does the commercial do? It makes it irrelevant whether or not you believe it. They know you don't believe it, and you know that they know and everybody knows. And so the concern for the truth is put aside. But nevertheless, what happens? Independent of your belief, you find the alcohol attractive. It stands out for you. It's salient, you're attracted to it. And so you buy the product. That's why they invest all this money in these advertising. Now, that's a form of bullshitting. Right, that's a funnel bullshitting. And what's happening is and we see this becoming more pervasive, the concern for the truth is dropping away. And all that matters is how attracted people are to certain ideas to certain patterns of behavior, etc. Now, what is especially pernicious about this is because the connection to truth and reality are separate, you can see right away, how that's going to undermine your meaning it's going to undermine your connectivity, right? To yourself, to each other, to the world. So right there, you can see it undermining meaning. But here's a second way which undermines meaning. The thing about, we use this metaphor for self deception: we say we lie to ourselves, you can't actually lie to yourself. You can't say, Hey, I don't really believe that Susan loves me. But I'm going to say to myself, Susan loves me. It doesn't work that way. And part of the problem is, is because belief is not something you have voluntary control over. You can't like pick a belief you'd like to have pick up. Everybody loves you. Okay, believe it, go. Do it. Doesn't work. Belief doesn't work that way. But the thing is attention and salience - how things stand out for you and attraction - they work in a much different fashion. They work outside of that belief machinery. Right? So I could simply make something salient to you. If I say your right hand, you're suddenly aware of it and stands for you. Now making something a little bit more salient makes it more attractive. Now notice how your attention keeps wanting to go back to your right hand right now. Oh, how's my right hand doing? Right? Right? So notice what I can do, I can direct my attention to make something salient. And then that will make it a little bit more attractive. So it's more likely to catch my attention, right? And then we'll notice what happens, and then it catches my attention, so I pay attention to it more, and you see how it feeds on itself. And then what I do is I can bullshit myself until I'm super attracted to things. And then what happens is all the biasing mechanisms are being kicked into place, right by all of this, these fields of attraction. So I will, I will start to form beliefs eventually that are appropriate to the and that's how I deceive myself. That's how I deceive myself. So not only does bullshitting undermine the connectivity to realness by undermining our primordial care and concern for the truth, it also undermines meaning by making us vulnerable to self deception. And of course those two things are linked. The more somebody, the more vulnerable I am to bullshitting myself. The more prey I am to other people bullshitting me and those all reinforce each other.
Aditi Desai As Dr. vacati mentions, we could all fall prey to bullshitting. This is because as he explains, the same cognitive processes that help us adapt to our world are the very cognitive processes that make us more prone to falling for this bullshit.
Dr. John Vervaeke And here's the key thing, that that directing of your attention and making something salient and ignoring other things, that's core to you being intelligent. Because if you don't have that filtering ability, like so, this is what I do my major scientific work on. The amount of information that's actually available in this room is overwhelming, its vast. You can't pay attention to most of it. Also, all the information being generated by your body, all the information available into your long term memory, and then all the possible courses of action. You could you could get up and sing right now if you wish. Right? Right? This is the problem, this is the issue I call relevance realization: You're constantly, your brain is constantly at many levels, many scales, many scopes, it is trying to determine what the relevant information is, because it needs to zero in on the information that's relevant to whatever problems or tasks it's trying to address. So it's always having to screen off. So see what I'm trying to show you that that that machinery which is the core to your adaptive intelligence, your ability to fit to the world, in a way in which things are relevant to you and you connected to you is also the machinery that makes you prey to bias and self deception. And this is why it's a deep and difficult problem to address. And you can't address it just by sort of having theoretical beliefs. You have to fundamentally get to the guts of that attentional and agentic machinery and transform it in a profound way. That's why I say awakening from the meaning crisis and not just solving the meaning crisis.
Stephanie Nishi In psychology and Buddhist philosophy, we come across a term called ego. Many psychologists and philosophers have referred to the dissolution of our ego as an important step towards becoming awakened or enlightened. However, the concept of the ego has distinct definitions depending on the context, and is often incorrectly used in our everyday language. We asked Dr. Vervaeke to define this concept for us and explain it to utility and helping individuals awaken from the meaning crisis.
Dr. John Vervaeke The problem with the term ego is we think it's a it has a single reference, but it's actually equivocal. It points to many different things. Same with the term self, and self and ego overlap in in strange and confused and befuddling ways. So we have to be sort of really, really careful and try to pull a bunch of things apart. I'm going to use the word self to be the organization of your cognition that gives you agency, that gives you your ability. So what's an agent? An agent is different from a behavior, everything behaves, everything generates behavior, right? An agent, this isn't a comprehensive definition because what an agent is a philosophically profound problem. But here's at least an important idea, an agent, unlike mere behaviors, an agent can in some sense, determine the consequences of its behavior and alter its behavior to try and alter the consequences. So in some senses, agents, can they be therefore understood as problem solvers? This glass is not solving any problems, although it behaves in a lot of ways. Is that okay? So what I'm calling yourself is the structural, functional, organization of your embodied cognitive processes. That doesn't just doesn't just mean thoughts in your head, it means the skills you exercise, right? The states of consciousness that are available to you. So you have a structural functional organization of that machinery that makes you an agent. What it fundamentally is doing, I think, is what I was mentioning earlier. It's controlling at many levels in a highly complex and dynamically self organizing fashion, relevance realization, how you realize what's relevant. So you're doing it right now. You've got a whole topography of how things are salient to you, what's for grounded, what's background, you're assuming an identity, you're assigning a bunch of identities. You're doing all of this stuff, and you're doing it like that. And so you can't do without that. Because if you did without that, you would just face a nightmare. Worse than anything that that Cronenberg has ever produced. You'd be facing a nightmare of a combinatorial explosion of information in all directions. You would have no sense of your place or role or relevance to all that. You would be as you would be dissolved in terror. You don't want that. And I don't think that's enlightenment. [all laugh] So, the idea that we should, that we can sort of fundamentally dissolve that machinery away, I think it's a mistake.
Stephanie Nishi Dr. Vervaeke points to flow state and helping to dissolve the ego. He clarifies this idea of losing yourself by stating that people often misuse this phrase. Although the ego may have dissolved agency remains intact during flow state.
Dr. John Vervaeke So people can get into a state. It's it seems to be universally available. There doesn't seem to be across you know, gender, across socioeconomic status, language use, historical context, everything. People can get into the flow state. Maybe you've had this. This is where you feel like really at one with what you're doing, like it's a weird state because, you know, metabolically, you're exerting a lot of effort, but it feels effortless. It feels graceful. You feels really at one with everything. The world seems very salient, super salient and alive. People get into this like an athletics or jazz or martial arts or poetry or video gaming. Okay, so you get in the zone, right? The flow state. Now, nobody knows what people reliably report in the flow state. They don't report that their agency is gone. Because of their agency was gone, that would be a disaster. But what happens in the flow state is that narrative, image management, self referential thing that we could call yout ego, that drops away. And here's the thing, here's the way in which it has been bullshitting you for your entire life. Because what it keeps saying is, I'm absolutely necessary to your agency. Don't lose me, because without me, you'll lose your agency.
Aditi Desai That's the ego.
Dr. John Vervaeke Yeah, that's the ego, that's, at least, what I've met, what I've tried to stimulate is how I'm using that term, I published work on how flow is basically an extension of the machinery that's available and insight. You know, when you have like an aha moment, you can think of flow like just an extended aha moment, right? And so, and then, and then you get awakening experiences, and then you get enlightenment. The point is, all of that machinery. So in the sense that you just had of how you can lose that narrative, image managing, status craving thing in your head, and get your agency enhanced in flow. Imagine if you could extend that even more and more and more. That I think is what happens when people have awakening experiences, mystical experiences. And then if that enhanced agency and the reduction of the bullshitting of the narrative ego drops away, is directed towards ameliorating these perennial problems of self deception in a comprehensive and systematic way, that's how I think we should understand enlightenment. Instead of just trying to just find enlightenment phenomenologically and build all this mystique around it, let's reverse engineer it, we need to solve these perennial problems of self deception. We need to we need to have we need systematic and reliable ways to address that and to enhance meaning in life.
Stephanie Nishi Can flow state help us transcend our consciousness deeper and deeper and a way to reach enlightenment? Is there an end to flow state?
Dr. John Vervaeke And thank you give me a perfect segue so that I can shamelessly promote my next book. So the idea of the cognitive continuum. So let me quickly explain this notion of exaptation. This is Michael Anderson's work. I think it's some of the best work, and the impact it's going to make on our ideas about brain functioning and brain development, I think I'm going to be profound and pervasive. But basically what he argues, so let's do a, let's get quickly what it is biologically. So exaptation is during speciations, right? The modification of the morphology of a creature by through processes like natural selection. What you do is evolution doesn't have to sort of make I'm going to use design in quotation marks, because there's no intelligent agency behind evolution, that language is agentic. So please forgive me. But evolution doesn't have to design from scratch. So notice, I'm using my tongue to speak right now. Right? Lots of creachers have tongues, and they don't talk. So tongues didn't originally evolved for speaking, they evolved for sensing poison, and for moving food around. And for weird evolutionary reasons, our tongues happen to be also in our air pathways, right? And so this machine is highly flexible, highly sensitive, and can interrupt the flow of air in really significant ways. So it's a great machine to use for talking. So Evolution doesn't have to make a speaking machine from scratch, it can exact the tongue. That doesn't mean you lose the tongue's function right? Now, what you can think of as you can think that, what our brains are doing, right? It's that they're exacting, they're taking things that sort of self organized for doing one set of problems, and then they get exacted for other things. The flow state is when you exact the insight machinery into something more comprehensive. But that machinery that flow machinery can be exacted up into mystical experience, where the dissolution of that narrative ego becomes profound. And the sense of at one becomes comprehensive, and you feel profoundly at one with everything. That can go even deeper that can be exacted into what's called an awakening experience. So, if the experience goes very deep, it can get into the depths of that machinery I was talking about, that machinery of the self. And remember, it's always not only the depth of the self, but it's the depth of the world that that you're connected to. So you, right? If the mystical experience goes deep into the machinery of the self, and deep into the machinery of how you understand the world, you can have an awakening experience. What happens is, and I studied this a lot is people get what are called higher states of consciousness, they get a sense of, see, most of our altered states of consciousness we dismiss. We say, that's a dream. Oh, that's not real. I was drunk, that's not real. But what's weird about these altered states of consciousness, these higher states that I'm about to describe, is people go into them and they say, that was more real than all of this. And then because we want, this is the meaning of life, because we want to be deeply connected to what is most real, what people will do is they will transform their identities and their lives to try and stay in closer contact, greater conformity, with the really real. I call this ontonormativity. The, this normative demand, we're called by what's most real. If in that transformation, they internalize a whole bunch and ecology of psycho technologies for addressing perennial problems of self deception and for enhancing, even beyond what you get in the flow state, that deep sense of connectedness, imagine people who had profound flowing insight and we're deeply connected in such a way that they are always in a fluid and creative manner, addressing perennial problems of self deception. And their relevance realization was superb. They come into any messy and complex situation and way better than you or I, they can zero in on the relevant information and adapt their agency to it. Wouldn't that be a wise person would not be a very wise person. That's what I mean by enlightenment.
Aditi Desai In one of Dr. Vervaeke's recent publications, he makes an interesting argument that the zombie which is a modern day myth is a symbol of the meaning crisis. Since the meeting crisis is so pervasive in our society does this mean we're all Zombies?
Dr. John Vervaeke I wouldn't say everybody is zombies. [all laugh] So the zombie is mindless. So its meaning making ability is really really truncated, if not, almost zero, right? Notice that in many, many versions, the zombies actually hungry for the meaning making machine they want to eat brains, which is really strange. This also points to that they're locked into a, an empty mode of consumption, and their consumption doesn't feed them. It doesn't nourish them, right? Because they're not actually sort of alive. Right? They're the only communal monster, they move around in hoards, but there's no communitas, there's no connection. There's no shared culture, and they don't have a home. They don't have a lair. They don't have a castle. They don't have they don't have any of that stuff. They don't have a place they haunt, right? They don't have a home, they're homeless, they drift. They're directionless, they drift, right? They're like us, in that way. They're us decayed. Everything about us has decayed, and become ugly, and lost contact, lost meaning, and lost direction, and lost purpose, and lost community, lost history, all of that's gone in the zombie. The zombie isn't even particularly threatening on its own, the zombie. It's just because they overwhelm you with their so they work en mass, right like mass society where we're overwhelmed by the mass behavior of people, and we don't understand why they're behaving, why they're doing the things they do.
Dr. John Vervaeke The zombie also is a perversion of some of our oldest mythograms for the cultivation of self transcendence and self transformation. This is the mythological, and I don't mean this as an insult, I use this I don't use this term pejoratively, I think the zombie is a perversion of the myth of the Christian resurrection. So Christianity created this pathway for cultivating wisdom and self transcendence. And its ultimate mythological representation for that was the resurrection as exemplified in Christ, and we could imitate him and participate. Notice how we end up imitating the zombies but only through infection and degradation, and the end the way the zombie comes back is not, right, a life. It's not. It's not the life the abundant life that Christ promised. And notice that also that the zombie has magnetized and connected to another myth, the apocalypse, which is also originally a Christian idea. And so the apocalypse is like remember we talked about insight the apocalypse originally met revelation. It's like an insight restructuring of the entire world. Jesus returns and the world the old world ends, but like in the sense like when you're trapped in a problem, and your old way of looking at the problem ends, and a new way of seeing reality like in an insight. So you imagine like an insight that was spread over the whole world and transformed at all. That's the apocalypse. That's revelation. But the zombie apocalypse doesn't do that, the zombie apocalypse doesn't reveal or disclose a new way of understanding ourselves or reality. In fact, it is, in fact, it does the opposite. The zombie apocalypse brings no narrative closure. There's no finality. There is no solution. There's just a pervasive sense of the spreading of the despair, and the degradation. So the zombies, I think, in many ways prevert, undermine, right, all of the meaning making machinery and some of our deepest and most profound mythological symbols for the cultivation of wisdom, transformation of meaning. So that's how I think the zombie represents what has become a pervasive metaphor for the meaning crisis.
Stephanie Nishi In addition to zombies, the Joker, interestingly, also embodies the meaning crisis.
Dr. John Vervaeke But what's interesting is there's a shift because whereas the zombie represents that sort of anonymous amorphous mass, Joker is the isolated, fragmented, individual who can't connect: can't connect to himself, can't connect to others, can't connect to the world, and all that he has left of relevance is narcissism. Just an empty, absurd, wanting people to look at him and pay attention to them. Right? And so that absurdity of narcissism, that's why narcissism is growing and pervasive in our culture because it's sort of a last ditch defense and a very degraded one, of our relevance making machinery. And so what does the narcissist do? Their position is ultimately absurd. So what they do is they violently try to bring about as much chaos and absurdity around them. So at least their narcissism is at least in that weird perverted way, is legitimated because at least then everything is absurd. And so that is a particularly worrying trend in my mind, because the shift from the zombie to Joker if it happens - it's not clear if it's going to - but if it happens, it represents a much more violent, angry response to the meaning crisis.
Aditi Desai This might be an overstatement, but collectively as a species, if we're evolving to either become zombies or eventually become Jokers, that would result in the distruction of humanity.
Dr. John Vervaeke That's a real possibility.
Aditi Desai Yeah. So would you say that finding meaning is important to the evolution of humanity?
Dr. John Vervaeke And I mean, I know. What I'm about to say sounds grandiose, right, and filled with hubris. But yeah, I'm trying to save the world. [all laught] I mean, I'm working with a whole bunch, a growing number of people who are putting, and it's so impressive. So many of these people are putting time and talent and their finances and their lives into these projects that I'm talking about. And so much is happening precisely because of this. And I think many of them think that what they're doing is not just individually valuable, even valuable to their community. They're trying to bring about, they're trying to sow the seeds of a cultural cognitive transformation, that would, yeah, save the world, to put it in a rather harsh slogan. Yeah.
Aditi Desai As you might have gathered so far, meaning is really core to who we are. You may have initially thought that reaching enlightenment or finding true meaning could only be achieved on the highest mountains of the Himalayas. But as you just heard, that isn't necessarily the case. Although cultivating wisdom and finding meaning isn't a cakewalk, there are active steps we can all take towards it. We asked all three of our guests if they had any suggestions or recommendations of habits we can adopt in our day to day lives to create more meaning.
Dr. John Vervaeke First of all, frame this as not just a hodgepodge, or list of practices. That's why I use the term ecology. Think about how the various practices, try to find practices that have complementary sets of strengths and weaknesses, so that they can act as checks and balances on each other. You should take up a mindfulness meditative practice. And then you should also take up some kind of mindfulness contemplated practice, you should definitely have a movement practice like tai chi chuan, especially a movement practice that gets you more in touch with, a better taste for, getting into the flow state and a much more comprehensive fashion. You need to take up practices of active open mindedness. Here's a practice I do. I begin the day by reviewing some of the scientific research on various cognitive biases, like the confirmation bias, whatever, right? And then what I do throughout the day is I try to notice instances where I am engaging in that bias and then I try to actively counteract it. And then at the end of day, I write in a journal about, you know, where I was falling prey to the bias and maybe I didn't catch it, or where I did catch it, when I got into the flow state, when it went the opposite, so you really sensitize yourself with active open mindedness, getting into the flow state. You want to take up a practice of Philia and Sophia, you want to read, not so much a lot of modern academic philosophy, although there's good stuff out there, but I would recommend getting in touch with one of the ancient philosophical schools and getting into the literature. Don't just don't fall prey to sort of Orientalism and it's only the eastern thing. Only in the east is there wisdom, and all that kind of bullshit, right? Definitely take a look at Buddhist practices and Daoist practices, but also look at, you know, look at your own wisdom traditions, read Hadot's book, What is Ancient Philosophy or Philosophy as a Way of Life. Make sure at least one of your practices is socially organized, that you're putting yourself in touch with the collective intelligence of distributed cognition. Culture is our big adaptation. It shapes us to our environment and our environment to us and we have to get reinvested deeply in our culture.
Stephanie Nishi He just heard Dr. Vervaeke's take on some meaning creating habits. Dr. Rashid also shared with us what he thinks we can do to unlock our full potential.
Dr. Tayyab Rashid So flow is the main ingredient of our psychological capital. This is how we build ourselves. All, most of us have experienced, snippets of flow. So what I would suggest is that when it's winter, when there's less light, let's have our clients, our students, our other individuals in different sectors tap on to their creativity. Because you you can be creative in many avenues, and creativity can engage you. If possible I asked them to explore their strengths and explore their strengths from multiple perspectives. So it's a bit of a technical way. Then they do a bit of a test which involves least amount of words. Then one is about language and then online self report, validated measure, but more importantly, I ask students and my clients to request to people to identify their strengths. Not crank them, but just identify the top five, four or five strengths, and then put out all the profile together. And even if creativity is low, but they are, there are other strengths which are high, for example, if grit is high, perseverance is high, curiosity is high, appreciation of beauty is high. How can you use these strengths towards creative endeavors? So even a boring task such as writing a term paper, how can you infuse more curiosity in it? How can you bring the element of something of love of learning, something that you did not know? How can you bring into that? So I think we also need to demystify creativity from the high pedestal of you know, the easel and the painting and the performing arts. That creativity every day, creativity which uses, which taps many other assets and abilities. So that's one way. Secondly, I would say another important aspect in positive psychology is relationships and connecting. I sort of, so demystify the relationship in the sense that there is no perfect relationships. All relationships are, or have some pluses and minuses. So if we can gently train our mind, our attention to spot the positives, that can foster closer relationships. Not perfect again, we're not going for perfection. And I think, connecting with others during this time, sharing their lives, asking about their lives, sharing your aspects of your life, discussing things can be also very helpful to ward off the winter blues.
Aditi Desai And what does Dr. Picard have to say? She believes that one of the reasons people who practice mindfulness often report experiencing positive emotions and a sense of centeredness similar to those with ecstatic seizures is because of prediction errors. And so by practicing mindfulness, we might not be able to change the size of prediction errors, but we can change the way we respond to them.
Stephanie Nishi And there you have it, folks. We hope you enjoyed our unique and stimulating discussion on meaning and well being from our diverse guests. Thank you to doctors, Picard, Rashid, and Vervaeke for sharing your expertise and insights with us. We hope that this episode may help in some way, as we all may go through our own personal reflections as this year draws to a close.
Aditi Desai A huge thank you to the episode team. We were your hosts, Aditi and Stephanie. Amber was our content developer. Grace and Eryn were our executive producers. Alex was our audio engineer, and CJ and Thamiya were our photographers. Don't forget to fill out our 2019 Raw Talk listener feedback survey. We wish you all a happy, relaxing, and meaningful holiday season. Until next time, keep it raw and find your flow.
Stephanie Nishi Raw Talk Podcast is a student presentation of the Institute of Medical Science in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. The opinions expressed on the show are not necessarily those of the IMS, the Faculty of Medicine or the University. To learn more about the show, visit our website rawtalkpodcast.com and stay up to date by following us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @rawtalkpodcast. Support the show by using the affiliate link on their website when you shop on Amazon. Also, don't forget to subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you listen to podcasts and rate us five stars. Until next time, keep it raw.