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The Attention Span. "The Talking Serpent."

There's one skill that seems to outshine all others when it comes to successfully navigating an increasingly volatile environment. This story is my attempt to understand it.

The critical importance was reinforced by one of the most interesting essays I’ve read.

‘The Talking Serpent.”

[8 minute read].

Source: Stable Diffusion AI image generator.

There once was an explorer travelling through a dark jungle. He was engulfed in an overwhelming carnival of the senses. Tweets, croaks, moldy smells, and occasional glimpses of ominous shadows moving through trees. There was a hidden path through the dense foliage. This was where the vines parted, he was safe from predators and he could move swiftly through the darkness. The path was winding and dingy, but he could sense when he was on it. He had to learn to feel his way using every intuition he had. Even still, he would still regularly thump headfirst into trees or tumble into ditches.

One day he met a talking serpent. This snake was exceptionally articulate and persuasive. It had a light in his mouth that could shoot a piercing beam about the width of an apple. It was so strong that it could illuminate the hairs on the legs of a mosquito from a half mile away. With the snake perched on his left shoulder, the man could anticipate every stalking predator and kill anything he wanted to eat. In his comfort and dominance, the man grew complacent. Soon he forgot about the path entirely. And the snake slowly persuaded him it had never even existed. The serpent took control of where he pointed his head and the direction he walked, even if that led further and further from the path.

But over time, the man started to feel uneasy. He had this nagging sense that there was something he needed to be doing. Using the light he could identify, analyze, and categorize everything in the jungle, but it wasn’t helping him to travel through it. He also started to suspect that the snake was lying to him. He noticed whenever it didn’t know the answer to a question it simply made one up. The snake tended to assume that everything its light shone on was all that was important. The snake didn’t have access to the feelings that helped the man find the path.

Gradually, the explorer began to listen less to the snake and more to his long-dormant feel of the jungle. He realized that he could sense the path again. At first the snake fiercely resisted him; screaming in his ear that he was making a fatal mistake. There was a long period of struggle between them. But eventually the man gained control of the light’s direction. This time he could also use the snake’s light to move along the path even more effectively, as long as he maintained control of where it was pointed.

One skill to rule them all?

This simple allegory is intended to illustrate the single most important trait I’ve been able to find: mental flexibility.

Rules are suited for more predictable times. In the chaos and uncertainty of the present day, we need intuition, imagination, and wisdom.

In Dr. Iain McGilchrist’s revelatory theory, “opponent processing,” or optimal tension between our hemispheres, allows us to effectively navigate the world. The right hemisphere should have control over the direction of our attention, and the left hemisphere brings things into focus for analysis. The ability to efficiently balance them results in optimal cognition.

A couple of weeks ago, a reader kindly sent me Brett Andersen’s long-form essay “Intimations of a New Worldview.” As an evolutionary psychology PhD, Brett has written a synthesis of the work of McGilchrist and cognitive science professor John Vervaeke (both previous KCP speakers). Not only has he reached many of the same conclusions that have changed my life, but he demonstrates how mainstream science is increasingly confirming these beliefs. I believe it is a spectacular piece of work (below).

A critical concept at the heart of both Andersen and Vervaeke’s research is “relevance realization.” It’s primarily the ability to ignore the infinite complexity of the jungle and focus on what’s immediately important for following the path. Many mental illnesses stem from malfunctions in the way we pay attention. As Brett puts it “one of the most common sources of psychopathology is the refusal to pay attention to one’s own accumulating errors.” Indeed, “sin” itself translates as “missing the mark.” It’s following the snake deeper into darkness while ignoring the intuitions of our right hemisphere. Thus rapid error-correction is absolutely central to cognitive flexibility, however painful it is. It’s struggling back to the path through thorny bushes. This is made doubly difficult by the fact that the left hemisphere, the metaphorical serpent, assumes its worldview is total and lies when it doesn’t understand something. This is presumably because it’s evolutionarily superior to be fast and certain rather than slow and right.

Andersen believes the ubiquitous hero myth (that I’m obsessed with) is a generalized story of those individuals who were best at relevance realization. They can navigate the world most effectively, but also help point the way for others. The path through the jungle is a metaphor for the Tao, “the way.” Optimal cognition allows us to flow through life. This can result in insight-cascades, where your ability to focus on what matters gets progressively better and better. This is the definition of wisdom: the ability to focus on what’s most important. Just like a man in a cacophonous jungle: it’s much more important to learn what to ignore. Success is associated with a felt-sense of meaning, when narrow focus and broad focus (snake and man) are in harmony.

The Jungle Ecology

HOW is this balance achieved in our lives? Obviously this is an infinitely complex question that’s been central to human culture for millennia. Vervaeke’s starting point is to have an “ecology” of three complimentary practices:

  1. A meditative practice (he uses Vipassana),

  2. A contemplative practice (for example, Metta),

  3. An embodiment practice (he’s a big fan of Tai Chi).

Put extremely simplistically, the way I see it is that meditation helps us narrow-in to examine if the snake’s head is pointing in the right direction. A contemplative practice helps us broaden-out our perspective to orient ourselves in the jungle. The embodiment practice hones the felt-senses that help us attune to the path.

Metta meditation is a practice centered on relating to the broader world with an attitude of loving kindness. This is the final and perhaps the most important insight. Direct experience has led me to believe the elemental force that guides us on the path feels something like love (as much as I really dislike that word in this context). This Metta contemplative practice therefore works as a bridge between snake and human; with a felt-sense of “interestingness/meaning/love” as the guide. This relationship is reciprocal with the outside world and is sometimes as simple as asking “what am I interested in?” or “what makes me come alive?” The delicate balance of what grabs your attention and what holds your attention.

A recent talk by artist Jonathan Pageau describes this as “combinatorial explosiveness collapsed by love.” Just as when you're drawn to a romantic partner, what attracts you narrows down the infinite number of things you could pay attention to. That’s what helps you develop the constant flexibility to stay on the path. Synchronicities, meaningful coincidences, are the way our environment signals back that we're on the right path. If we are closed to that sense of meaning, everything seems random. Yet if we're too open, we see connections where they don’t exist. So in an extremely non-sentimental way, that means your ability to give and receive "love" should affect how successfully you can navigate the world.

“What's changing is not the content. Not this or that piece of knowledge. What's changing is your functioning. You're not gaining knowledge, you're gaining wisdom. You're gaining skills and sensibilities and sensitivities of significance landscaping that radically transform your existential mode.”

-John Vervaeke

Related Reading and Listening.

  • Read. Intimations of a New Worldview by Brett Andersen (90 minute read). [This material is the opinion of Brett Anderson and does not necessarily represent the viewpoints of Stifel or its associates].

  • Why read. I believe this is a truly remarkable piece of work. There are ideas in here that will take me months, if not years, to unpack. The core arguments in this piece are:

    • There is a general process involved in the ongoing creation and complexification of everything.
    • In biology, this process manifests as an increase in the scope of non-zero-sum games over the course of evolution.
    • The large brain size in human beings was socially and sexually selected based on our ability and propensity to participate in the process of discovering and facilitating non-zero-sum games (which is equivalent to the process of complexification).
    • John Vervaeke’s relevance realization is how this process of complexification manifests in cognitive development.
    • Ever since human beings evolved the ability to talk, we have been telling stories about people who were best able to participate in this process. Over time, the general pattern underlying these stories was abstracted out and encoded into the hero mythologies found cross-culturally.
    • Our participation in this process is biologically and psychologically optimal.
    • Our participation in this process (which is equivalent to relevance realization) is equally our participation in the process of creation/complexification itself.

  • Listen. John Vervaeke on Consciousness (56 minute listen).

  • Why listen. This rich podcast from John puts cognition into a fitness-landscape context. It covers the essential topics of wisdom, meaning, and higher states of consciousness.

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