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The Attention Span. "Our Invisible War."

What if an enormous current trend has a hidden cause?

In order to make the case, we need to return to humanity’s most important story.

“Our Invisible War.”

[11 minute read]

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

Source: Getty Images

We are currently living through an era defined by contradictions. We have unprecedented material abundance, physical safety, and access to information. And yet, the CDC recently reported that 42% of U.S. adults exhibited symptoms of anxiety or depression in early 2021. They also found that the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” has risen from 26% in 2009 to a horrifying 44% in 2021. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.

Do they not realize they’ve never had it so good? Or is there something far more interesting going on?

Tug of War

Simplistically put, we are all divided between competing drives of exploration and exploitation. This relationship is reflected in the “oppositional processing” of our two brain hemispheres. A favorite example illustrates this well. When ants find a new food source, they lay pheromone trails so that the rest of the colony can find it. Each subsequent ant reinforces the trail, and makes the signal stronger. They exploit. And yet a certain number of ants peel-off the path, seemingly at random. They explore. A remarkable and profound finding was that ants peel-off the path at a rate that’s directly proportional to the pace of change in the external environment. A more unstable environment requires more exploratory behavior so that the ants don’t get stuck exploiting a diminishing food source. As the environment starts deteriorating, the exploration drive increases. Somehow they know.

Contemporary human culture has become imbalanced toward exploitation. We have incredible comfort, safety, and predictability. More people globally now die from obesity than malnutrition. For our “exploit” instinct, it is truly the best of times. But our era is also defined by disconnection, environmental destruction, and mental illness. We’re increasingly troubled by the nagging sense that something isn’t quite right, and it’s getting worse.

Unlike the ants, our growing exploration urge isn’t driving us to discover new territories. We’ve run out of places to go. We already have all the food we need. Instead it’s driving an evolution of consciousness, toward one that’s more realigned with our environment. Humans’ overgrown predator mentality is causing the problem, so that’s what nature is trying to change. This is the “call to adventure” described in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. This ubiquitous human story precisely describes the transition of consciousness. As our environment deteriorates, this legend is increasingly the subtext of our most popular movies and T.V. shows.

It’s a subtext because the drive for exploration is fundamentally unconscious. We can only see evidence for it via secondary effects. That makes it very easy to deny it’s happening, especially to ourselves. We can easily point to all the food we have to eat, but not to the psychological nourishment we’re starving for. Because this conflict is primarily psychological, we’re witnessing the battle play out through an invisible global crisis in mental health.

Like canaries in a mine filling with invisible gas, our most sensitive children can detect this underlying dissonance and dysphoria. A recent Gallup poll found that more than one in four girls reported that they had seriously contemplated attempting suicide during the pandemic. They are unconsciously aware our environment is growing more unstable. They just don’t know how to articulate it or resolve it.

Some of the greatest tragedies of modernity might be due to a psychological misinterpretation. In order to surrender to unconscious exploration, the conscious exploitation drive needs to reluctantly hand over the wheel. But our left hemisphere is fundamentally competitive with the right. We’re so deeply identified with our conscious egos, this “death of the smaller self” is often interpreted as a desire for a literal death; suicide. Instead, Aldous Huxley explains it well:

“The personal conscious self being a kind of small island in the midst of an enormous area of consciousness -  what has to be relaxed is the personal self, the self that tries too hard, that thinks it knows what is what, that uses language. This has to be relaxed in order that the multiple powers at work within the deeper and wider self may come through and function as they should.”

The sacrifice that’s required is necessarily what the exploitation drive desires most. This is predictability, safety, security, and extreme individuality. Reading Peter Zeihan’s recent book about the tail risks of degobalization (insights here), it seems like the creature comforts, abundance and security of the 21st Century are becoming precarious. Life has a mysterious way of smoking us out of foxholes. The call to adventure escalates in response to a deteriorating environment.

For people or cultures that are already either stuck or stagnant, you only get a choice between two kinds of suffering. And only one of those paths is definitely fatal. Ants that exploit for too long will eventually starve. Burnout is the exhaustion of being trapped between explore and exploit. It’s like driving with your foot on the gas and brake at the same time. As our exploratory right hemisphere is largely mute, we can experience the conflict through chronic psychosomatic ailments or mental illness. Is it coincidental that we are currently experiencing epidemics of both?

There are dual evolutionary forces that reflect explore and exploit. Exploit, or “evolution of competition” is the well-known survival-of-the-fittest drive toward individuation. Explore, or what’s sometimes called “evolution of cooperation,” is much more mysterious and controversial among biologists. This is probably because it requires the possibility of a guiding intelligence beyond our own. That’s a topic that reliably fries the brains of so many in the scientific establishment. We experience this exploratory drive as “love,” through our hearts. This is why spiritual literature typically makes constant reference to both. The exploration urge isn’t random, and nor is the direction it guides us.

Boons and Bridges

A critical point is that “evolution” tends to reward us for rebalancing. The well-documented physical and psychological benefits associated with genuine “spirituality” are the result of a more holistic consciousness. It's also consistent that spirituality is associated with a more benign environmental perspective: vegetarianism, love, reciprocity, optimism, and community. Simply put, balanced individuals tend to thrive. This is why so many of the most interesting ideas revolve around practical ways to balance conscious and unconscious.

In every society there are those who have successfully made the transition, the Hero’s Journey. Psychologist Helene Shulman has noted that spiritual traditions across history describe a “phase change” threshold experience for individuals. This has been integrated into the vast majority of societies, with the notable exception of Western culture. It is an unstable and dangerous place. Those who have risked that journey and survived can take on the role of the Bodhisattva, or wounded healer, as Shulman writes:

“The ideal state of the human being is as a bridge-maker between conscious and unconscious, spirit and world, heaven and earth; and the bridge is expressed through bodily activity in the real world, through creativity and healing, and through synchronicities.”

But the problem with being a bridge is that they are always in a state of tension. So the hero willingly sacrifices themselves into a period of psychological pain in order to help redeem broader society. Then they can walk between worlds, and help others across, often with just their words. You’ll easily recognize this as familiar aspect of every superhero origin story, and of the saint, shaman, prophet, poet, or healer. Compare this entire concept to an excellent graphic of the mythological story outline.

Source: Thea Cooke

Starting in stasis (exploit), hearing a call to adventure (explore), undergoing a reconciliation with ego (obstacles to exploration), claiming your gift, becoming the master of two worlds then a return to the same place, but with a shift in consciousness (not higher, more integrated). Thirteen years later, Avatar is still the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s a hilariously specific retelling of this story, right down to the final reconciliation with the spirit of nature.

Bridge Builders

One way you know that this invisible transition is real is the growing number of people frantically trying to make money from building the bridges. Between Marvel, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, you have media franchises worth tens of billions of dollars based primarily on this story. But it’s not just content, the spiritual-industrial complex is now churning-out apps, consultancies, retreats, substances and (most interestingly) technological devices. In 2017, Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler estimated the size of the “altered state economy” at $4 trillion. The hand-wavingly massive number both demonstrates the arbitrariness of definitions and the size of the potential opportunity. Altered state industries range from relatively obvious (alcohol, drugs, or tobacco) to debatable (video games, yoga, or meditation). A colossal trend over the next few decades will be the transfer of economic value as practices flow from hedonist fringe to conformist mainstream. It’s also intriguing that a lot of the shift, especially among younger people, is from numbing the call (passive entertainment or alcohol) to ways of amplifying it. Not only are many of these tools dangerous and destabilizing, the journey itself can be beset with suffering. That makes for a poor sales pitch in a world primarily defined by its comfort.

The final reason for “radical hope” is that cooperation beats competition in an iterated game at a global level. The right hemisphere’s natural position is a duty of care to the competitive left. We naturally struggle to anticipate a better world beyond the rational event-horizon of our current mentality. The poetic Tennyson intuited more than the reductionist Darwinist. “Nature, red in tooth and claw” eventually loses to “Love, creation’s final law.”

Related Reading.

  • Listen. Invest Like the Best with Ken Stanley (1 hour 13 minute listen)
  • Why listen. It’s quite the happy coincidence that this podcast came out this week. This one might actually change the way you live your life. Ken gave one of the best presentations at Capital Camp in May. His entire thesis is that “greatness cannot be planned.” He uses real-life artificial intelligence (AI) examples to illustrate the difference between explore and exploit. Exploit can be planned and used for small things; habits around weight loss or exercise. But for exploration you need to optimize for “interestingness” of the place you’re at, rather than pre-determine where you’re going.

    • “So there's basically two pieces of advice I would give. One is collect stepping stones and honor interestingness. That is a system that we need to establish.”
    • "None of the stepping stones to any major invention were invented with that invention in mind.”
    • “This isn't how the world works. That's why there's cognitive dissonance in Western culture... So many objectives pervading everything. We somehow, I think, at some deep instinctual level realize this is insane.”

  • Read. Why American Teens Are So Sad by Derek Thompson (19 minute read)
  • Why read. This is a harrowing rundown of how bad the mental health statistics are. Thompson points to social media, isolation, a negative news cycle, and modern parenting strategies. These may all be factors, but perhaps they are caused by the overall societal imbalance discussed. Compare this to Dr. Iain McGilchrist’s vision of the world as created by the “exploitation” left hemisphere (with apologies for the ludicrously long sentence):

    • “I would contend that a combination of urban environments which are increasingly rectilinear grids of machine-made surfaces and shapes, in which little speaks of the natural world; a worldwide increase in the proportion of the population who live in such environments, and live in them in greater degrees of isolation; an unprecedented assault on the natural world, not just through exploitation, despoliation, and pollution, but also more subtly, through excessive ‘management’ of one kind or another, coupled with an increase in the virtuality of life, both in the nature of work undertaken, and in the omnipresence in leisure time of television and the internet, which between them have created a largely insubstantial replica of ‘life’ as processed by the left hemisphere — all these have to a remarkable extent realised this aim, if I am right that it is an aim, in an almost unbelievably short period of time.”

  • Read. How Animals See Themselves by Ed Yong (11 minute read)
  • Why read. This is a New York Times excerpt of Ed Yong’s new book An Immense World. This article explores the “umwelt,” an idea of critical importance. Essentially it illustrates that humans consciously perceive a microscopic percentage of what’s possible. The direct relevance to this piece is that it means ideas like electromagnetic frequencies influencing us through our hearts become much more plausible. We are much more embedded in our environment than our limited consciousness typically realizes. Which means it truly can guide us.

    • “The Umwelt concept is one of the most profound and beautiful in biology. It tells us that the all-encompassing nature of our subjective experience is an illusion, and that we sense just a small fraction of what there is to sense. It hints at flickers of the magnificent in the mundane, and the extraordinary in the ordinary. And it is almost antidramatic: It reveals that frogs, snakes, ticks, and other animals can be doing extraordinary things even when they seem to be doing nothing at all.”
    • Nonvisual senses are even harder for a visual medium to capture. You can play recordings of a whale’s song, but that doesn’t show what it means for whales to hear each other across oceanic distances. You can depict the magnetic field that envelops the planet, but that can’t begin to capture the experience of a robin using that field to fly across a continent.

Have a great weekend!

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