First Steps into the Holistic

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a single consciousness-speck in a larger, fully conscious Self – like a single ant in a colony or a single cell in a human brain. You have a consciousness of your own, but from the standpoint of the “fully conscious Self” we just mentioned, your value lies mainly in what you can contribute to the “Whole.”

Ask yourself these questions: How do you know what the Self wants you to do? How does the Self monitor and direct your contributions. … and though it might turn out to be a dead-end question, do you suppose there might be a way to send some sort of feedback to the Self, perhaps with the goal of influencing its chosen course of action?

These arent questions I expect to answer; I toss them out as a sort of “koan” (Zen parable) that might help us clarify the picture of how Holistic Consciousness works. We can only speculate on whether we humans already have such a relationship with the consciousness of our planet, but we can examine things like insect social networks, riot mobs and other multiple-level consciousnesses to at least make some guesses at how they work.

Insect colonies have very highly developed ways of transmitting information from the “hive mind” to the individual. In the case of ants, pheromone signals are used as the primary means of relaying information. Though the vocabulary is simple, studies suggest that enough information-sharing exists to allow the colony to engage in extremely nuanced “thinking” and decision-making. For example, when presented with two potential food bonanzas – only one of which can be reached by the colony the same day – ant colonies will weigh not only the relative volume of food reported, but also the distance to travel, the difficulty of intervening terrain, and the “bivouacking conditions” at each site (a suitable place for the colony to settle in for the night).

Researchers quickly confirmed what anyone who understands Consciousness  would expect – that the colony almost always made the choice that humans predicted they would make (ie. The one that seems most logical). The only peer review criticism I would offer to those who conducted the study is to suggest that in the cases where the ants made a choice that was Unexpected . . . .  it was probably the humans who missed some critical factor in the logical calculation, not the ants.

Bee colonies have developed forms of communication and internal feedback even more detailed and nuanced than those of ants (well . . . at least as far as what our scientists have identified – I dont want to be an ant-basher or an insect-racist). Individual bees can actually communicate very precise navigational data, as well as qualitative details we can only guess at, through a behavior often called “dancing.” The term is accurate enough as an allegory for the physical actions, but in terms of its purpose and function it should be clear that this “dance” is a form of rudimentary language.

The problem, though, is that “language” should be the last thing you find in an insect colony. Individual honeybees have something shy of 1 million neurons in their ENTIRE nervous system. That amounts to not even 1/10th the brain capacity of a small fish, or 1/50th that of a frog. That isn’t enough processing power to handle a representational model such as language. Heck, most creatures with a million-neuron brain are still straddling the line between un-nuanced binary behavior and rudimentary learned behavior. I discussed this hierarchy of Consciousness and its capabilities in greater detail, in a previous essay. At a million brain cells, a bee should still be struggling to use past experience as a filter to adjust future behavior; for example, by flying towards a porch light but avoiding a bug zapper

Yet each individual bee is not only capable of using language but also of understanding language and responding appropriately to the message. In fact, there is strong evidence that bees learn language, and that they are even capable of being bilingual! It appears that each hive may have its own dialect, with differences that vary as much as human languages. When researchers take bees from a foreign hive (doused with pheromones to make everyone think it is from the same hive) and send them into the throne room to dance their message to the queen, the hive may be slow to respond, uncertain of their directions, or may even ignore the dancer altogether.  Somehow the message is not getting through. However, if those “illegal immigrant” bees are tagged and left with the colony for a week or two, their future efforts to communicate with the hive grow more successful! They gradually learn to be a successful, hardworking contributor to the hive. Language is happening here.

So do we abandon the prevailing ideas about how much neural capacity is needed in order to engage in high-end consciousness tricks like language? Or do we accept that language ability is a feature of the hive, not the individual bee? The latter explanation might sound attractive, since it gives us 30 billion neurons for the hive as a whole (slightly more than a chimpanzee and about 1/3rd that of a human). That sounds like enough to handle language, right?

But if the HIVE is the one exchanging messages, it leaves us with a massive mechanistic problem. How does the consciousness of the hive control the actions of the individual bees, and how are the bees passing the ideas to the hivemind? When Bee-atrice flies into the hive and starts dancing, how do Bee-yonce and Bee-jorn immediately understand how to respond, while other bees have to wait until they’ve seen the dance themselves?  That seems to suggest that the language resides in the individuals, at least to SOME extent. And even if we accept the need for less-mechanistic concepts (such as “telepathy”), how can we explain the way that immigrant bees learn Hive-lish, when they join a new colony?

The only truly satisfying explanation requires us to view Consciousness as a (relatively) uniform medium that accumulates as the number of Consciousness-units (for want of a better word) increases. Each additional ant or bee or brain cell expands the capabilities of the Hive-mind, and when the volume is sufficient, it develops new capabilities.

This concept of Consciousness  as a free-flowing, cumulative thing will be extremely important as I progress with this discussion, because it conforms so perfectly to the descriptions that religions offer to describe the Psyche / the Atman / the Soul.  In the Hindu tradition, a famous allegorical story  uses exactly the same metaphor to explain the difference between an individual human soul and the Atman (universal soul).

. . . . .

The guru is telling his students about the supreme soul – the Atman – telling them “Atman and the individual Soul are one. Atman exists within every one of you.”
One disciple stands up and says: “But Guru-ji... the Atman – God – is great and powerful. Infinite worlds exist within him. How can something that enormous and powerful exist within me?”

Instead of an answer, the guru picks up a drinking bowl and hands it to the student. “Go get me a bowl of water from the Ganges river!” he orders.

The student gets up and follows his instructions, coming back a while later with a bowl of water. The guru looks at it and frowns. In a voice of deep disappointment he says: “Why cant you follow simple instructions? I told you to get me water from the Ganges river. This isn’t water from the Ganges!”

“Oh yes Guru-ji. I swear it . . .” says the student. “I got this water from the Ganges.”

“But there are fish in the Ganges river. I dont see any fish here! There are children bathing in the Ganges, women washing clothes, and pilgrims performing ablutions. I don’t see any women or children or pilgrims in this water. There are cows and deer and buffalo wading in the muddy water along the banks. I don’t see any cows, deer or buffalo. There isn’t even very much mud! Go back and get me water from the GANGES!”

“But Guru-ji,” the student pleads, “this bowl is far too small to contain any cows… or children… or even fish. It is just a tiny little bowl. I swear to you that this water comes from the Ganges; I just wasn’t able to bring any more water in this little bowl.”

The Guru shakes his head in understanding and says: “OK, take the water and pour it back into the Ganges.” The disciple goes off and does as instructed. When he comes back the guru asks him: “Where is the water now?”

“I took it back and poured it into the Ganges.”

“Are there fish in that water, now?”

“Why . . . . why Yes! . . . . yes there are.”

“Are there women and children and pilgrims and cows in that water now?”

“Yes Guru-ji. The water is part of the Ganges”

“In the same way that Ganges-water forms the Ganges, consciousness forms the Atman. When you limit your consciousness to the human body, you are water in the bowl. When you let go of the limitations that make you human, you are water in the Ganges. But the water always remains the same.”

. . . . . . .

If we accept that explanation of how Consciousness works, then we should have a logically sound model for how Holistic Consciousness interacts with individual consciousness. When enough of the individual components come together and develop some means of exchanging information and providing feedback, they will begin to behave in a coordinated fashion which – in time – exhibits all the characteristics of a separate consciousness. The “thoughts” and “decisions” made by this Holistic Consciousness may be extremely simplistic, but they also exercise powerful control over the behaviour of the individual components. Psychologists who study the behavior of crowds confirm this, noting that people who are part of a "mob crowd" invariably adopt group objectives and follow group decisions, though the individuals may be completely unaware that they are being "controlled".

For example, both the “World Cup winner” species of crowd and the “protest police injustice” species tend to set off in the direction of some nearby symbol of local authority, where the volume and intensity of the crowd will begin to crescendo. Once it has grown big enough to feel confident in its own identity (I am here. You must recognize me), it usually engages in a few aggression-displays such as turning over cars or breaking windows. Particularly the latter. In fact, you could say that the sound of broken glass is the sound of crowd consciousness awakening.

The thing is . . . if you ask the individuals afterward, most will tell you that they had no intention of causing any damage or breaking the law (even if they were actually the ones who broke a window). Somehow the euphoria sweeps them up into a state that is in the thrall of the crowd consciousness, and is not fully constrained by their usual sense of what is right and wrong, good or bad.  

I wont delve into questions of behavior or control, just yet. There is obviously a lot more that we need to understand about how group consciousness works. The one thing we CAN say with a fairly high degree of confidence is that “volume” is a prerequisite to Holistic Consciousness. To put it metaphorically: if we hope to have fish in the water, we need to have enough water to accommodate the fish.

Another important point to remember is that Consciousness has a way of directing events and actions, sometimes even in ways the individual components (whether bees or humans) do not expect. Big ideas and philosophical advances and social movements have a way of taking on a "life of their own". In fact, they have a habit (I say "habit" because it seems to be the rule, rather than the exception) of leaping from host to host in seeming defiance of physical boundaries of space and time. Once Holistic Consciousness gets rolling, it has a way of sweeping everyone up in the same torrent, or like some new virus, of infecting everyone with whom it comes into contact

Before we can examine this process further, we need to establish a few more definitions to identify the components of Consciousness. One concept that will be very important to our future discussion is the idea of the “Meme”. Nowadays, the term “meme” has come to be associated with a type of social media post -- pictures, movie stills or graphics accompanied by a clever saying or phrase. However, this more recent definition is a corruption of what started out as a very “scientific” concept, used in psychology and philosophy.

Richard Dawkins is often credited with coining the term "meme", and a detailed explanation of the theories and principles that underlie his definition can be found in the wikipedia entry for the word. In simplified form, the main ideas are that:

  1. A meme is a unit of information that exists independent of the objects associated with it, in the same way that Plato's "universal horse" (a mental concept) exists independently of the living horses that we see on a farm or at the racetrack.
  2. A meme "reproduces" through cultural transmission. As people interact, they convey memes to one another either through verbal transmission or nonverbal action, and the meme thereby makes a copy of itself in a new, previously unoccupied brain. In this sense, it not only resembles a gene (as the original coinage intended), but as Lyall Watson pointed out in his book "Supernature" it more accurately can be compared to a virus. People can be "infected" with a particular meme, and the meme then uses the infected person as a host to reproduce itself
  3. Memes not only occur naturally (when someone "comes up with a new idea"); they evolve over time, changing their character as society and people change. They also can be created artificially, and planted deliberately. The 1980s or 90s-era meme "Visualize World Peace" is an example of a meme that was deliberately created with the aim of "infecting" people with a particular global outlook. An earlier though similar meme – “Make Love Not War” – proved powerful enough to completely redirect the policies of the United States government in the 1960s, and its lingering impact dissuaded US presidents from pursuing military solutions (at least publicly) for a period of almost two decades
  4. Memes are entirely independent of the individual consciousnesses that contain the meme. They exist somewhere in the vast flowing river of Holistic Consciousness that we just discussed.

That last statement might sound a bit like pseudoscience or "New Age mysticism". But there are countless examples in scientific literature to support this interpretation. One example that most people are familiar with is the so-called "Hundredth Monkey" effect. The term "The Hundredth Monkey" comes from a study of Japanese macacqes at a research station in Kyushu. According to the literature, the researchers at one facility on the island of Yakushima used to feed the monkeys by leaving sweet potatoes at a feeding station near the beach. The monkeys enjoyed sweet potatoes, but due to the sandy soil around the feeding station, they often became coated with sand. As anyone who has ever chomped down on a small pebble or piece of sand in their food will keenly recognize, this is a very unpleasant sensation that any monkey would be eager to avoid.

The story begins with one juvenile macacque who was given the nickname "Imo" (sweet potato). Whether by accident, random behavior, or some flash of inspired insight, Imo figured out how to wash the sand off the tubers by dipping them in the sea before eating them. Imo taught the behaviour to her mother, and then to some of her fellow juveniles, who proceeded to teach their mothers. The scientists (who documented the events with copious notes) were amazed to see a concrete example of how new knowledge and behavior can be transmitted through a group, so they started monitoring Imo’s behavior in great detail, and exercising particular care not to “corrupt the evidence”, so to speak.  

Initially, the behaviour was only transmitted through direct observation and "teaching". The only monkeys who learned the behaviour were other juveniles (Imo's playmates) or the family members of the juveniles. Older monkeys continued to eat their sand-covered tubers with caution, trying to avoid grinding their teeth on bits of sand. Then something amazing happened, which nobody can really explain, and which has been the source of much dispute and dissension in the scientific community ever since.

About two decades ago I visited the facility in Yakushima myself. The researchers are extremely wary of what they say, perhaps because so many have tried to discredit their work altogether. But those familiar with the study insist that it happened exactly as described, and furthermore, that many similar incidents have been recorded since that time. In the Japanese primatology community, I cannot find any sign of serious doubt or disagreement regarding the recorded events. Japanese researchers treat it as something that "everybody knows...." and bristle when it is suggested that the story was concocted in some less-than-scientific manner. In any event, here is how the story was presented in the original research reports:

One evening, the troupe was continuing to display disparities in how they dealt with sandy potatoes, and transmission of the new meme (washing potatoes in the sea) was proceeding one monkey at a time. For convenience sake, let's say that there were 99 monkeys washing potatoes that evening, and the 100th monkey learned the behaviour just before it got dark.

 The following morning, the researchers were amazed to see EVERY monkey on the island washing the sweet potatoes before eating them. It seems that the meme had reached some "critical threshold" of learning, and the addition of the hundredth monkey carried this behaviour past some critical threshold, to the point where all monkeys in the troupe were now able to learn it.

But that was just the beginning. A few weeks later one of the researchers traveled to another facility, on the mainland (well… Kyushu is also an island, but it is a lot larger than Yakushima), and was astonished to see the monkeys there washing their potatoes too. The researchers at the station told him that many monkeys at that facility had suddenly started doing this, a few days earlier, but nobody was sure what caused them to "stumble" on the insight that water could be used to wash off the sand.

Today, monkeys throughout Japan possess this skill. Ive seen video of monkeys in Tohoku (1400km and at least two cross-ocean hops from Yakushima) doing it. The problem, of course, is how to explain the transmission of a learned behavior – a Consciousness meme -- across an entire country made up of hundreds of islands, some separated by miles of ocean. Japanese macacques are comfortable around water, but they are not fond of swimming. And even if they were not a very territorial type of animal, they would have had a tough time transmitting a cultural meme across the entire country.

This is by no means the only such example of inexplicable "meme transmission" noted among animals in Japan. Just a few years ago there was a fairly high-profile story in the news about crows that had learned to cooperate, to get at food scraps. Though the reports on current-affairs-type TV shows were not terribly scientific, it was fairly easy to see why the mass media found this behavior fascinating.

In Japanese cities, people put their garbage out for collection on garbage day in specified communal areas. Each of the collection sites (or at least a majority of them) is fitted with coverings or nets to prevent cats, rats or crows from raiding the garbagepile. Crows are extremely intelligent, and have defeated a variety of “garbage protection measures” over the years. By the late 1990s or early 00s the problem of crows had reached a point where cities like Tokyo were investing significant tax dollars in infrastructure to keep crows out of the garbage. The solution that most municipalities had adopted was to install heavy nylon nets over the collection site (residents would lift the net and place their garbage inside, then replace the nets. The nets were quite heavy, and wherever possible, were placed far enough above the piles of garbage bags that crows couldn’t just poke beaks through them to reach the bags.

One day, a group of crows apparently hit upon a solution – probably by random accident as they each tried individually to get at the garbage. The nets were suspended on frames which were far too heavy for a single crow to lift. Earlier crow-prevention methods had adopted lighter nets that crows had learned to lift off a garbage pile, but the newer nets were so heavy that it would take at least three or four crows, working together in unison and careful coordination, to lift the heavy nets and frames. Nevertheless, at some point a group of them figured out the trick, and began benefitting from the bonanza of garbage they had suddenly accessed.

Though nobody will ever know when or where the first group of crows stumbled across the skill, before long the crows all over Tokyo were doing it. Within the space of a few months it was necessary to install new, more effective barriers to keep crows out. But the story doesn’t end there. In a remarkably short period of time – no more than a year– the same behaviour suddenly appeared in Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Sapporo – every single corner of the country. Somehow, the meme travelled from one end of Japan to the other. It is hard to figure out how the news spread. While crows are good fliers, they also are very territorial, and rarely leave the area where they were hatched and raised unless food shortages force them to do so.

Apparently, memes for a particular behaviour can -- and do -- propagate themselves. The more useful the meme, the easier it is to spread. How they do so is a question that you are free to ponder on your own, but the important thing to understand is that memes clearly DO develop strength over time. And research on language learning has provided a clear demonstration that this is true for words themselves. Again, there are numerous examples of similar studies for those who want to research the matter further, but one or two will suffice as illustrations.

One experiment that has become something of a "cliche" meme in its own right is the use of lab rats and mazes, to study pattern-learning and memory. Due to their very ubiquity, these tests have been refined to eliminate any potential sources of experimental error and to ensure that the data gathered is very precise. Yet for all the care taken to ensure that animals are not following scent tracks or using some other sensory cues to guide them, some very intriguing data emerge. After a few dozen rats have learned the pattern of any given maze, new rats that have never run the maze before not only begin to "solve" it faster, but they also seem to find it easier to “remember” (ie. they quickly retain the mental map, so that as soon as they are placed in the maze they move quickly and directly, with no hesitation, to the reward). In what you could describe as a "hundredth rat" effect, patterns that a hundred or so rats have learned in the past somehow become easier for new rats to solve. . . . . .

This effect becomes even more intriguing when we see it develop in human memory creation. In one experiment, test subjects were presented with three "rhyming verses" in a language they were unable to speak or understand. Each verse was four lines long, had roughly 40-50 syllables in total, and had an alternating rhyme structure (line 1 rhymed with line 3, line 2 rhymed with line 4). However, since all were in a “foreign” language, to the conscious mind of the test subjects, all three were complete nonsense.

The researchers used sets of three verses, each time. One was just a random collection of words which happened to have a poetic meter and rhyme, but otherwise was nonsense even to a “native speaker”. The second was a poem composed by the researchers, and the third was a very old and famous poem that had great cultural significance. Each subject was given ten minutes to try to memorize the first poem, then asked to try to recite it. They then had another ten minutes to memorize the second, and then the third.

The results were provocative, to say the least.
Some subjects were unable to repeat any of the verses accurately. These trials were excluded from further analysis. But data for those who learned at least one of the rhymes well enough to repeat without a major error showed the following features:

37% of subjects managed to learn the first rhyme, 51% managed to learn the second, and 87% managed to learn the third. That ratio is provocative enough, but in cases where the subject was able to accurately repeat only ONE of the three verses, in 93% of cases it was the famous ancient poem. And when subjects managed to repeat two of the poems accurately, but made mistakes on the third, the famous ancient poem was included 100% of the time.

Apparently, the meme that has been read, learned and recited by millions of people in the past is somehow "more accessible" to people who have never heard it before. They find it easier to repeat words that have a deep cultural poetic resonance . . . even if they dont even have a clue as to what they are saying! Somehow, the meme has taken on a life of its own, and it is lurking there - in some Jungian sort of "collective subconscious" - just waiting for a new mind to infect.

I plan to discuss the concept of memes in greater detail, in future essays. My aim for now is just to provide an indication of how much power that can accumulate in a popular and widespread meme. You dont necessarily have to believe in the meme of "a Master Race" in order to understand how much power it can exert, or to recognize the ways that Adolph Hitler used it to control “the mob.” The Nazis managed to instil in the minds of nearly all Germans in the 1930s and 40s even without their conscious cooperation, and used it to manipulate an entire continent – in fact, an entire planet. In the same way, the meme of capitalism that most Westerners have been sold on a nonstop basis from the time they were babies has put down deep roots. Even if we can somehow offer convincing evidence that it is a “mistaken meme”, it is not going to be easy to dislodge unless a stronger meme can be created to replace it.

A genuine understanding of memes (and the Consciousness that underlies them) is critical if we hope to mend the huge tear that has developed in our cultural fabric. Unless our society can rediscover at least some degree of cohesion - of mutual understanding and "wholeness" - then the 99% will remain forever divided, as pawns played against one another in a grand chess game, for the amusement of the Owners. And that is the topic that I hope to discuss next.

Perhaps I am overly optimistic in seeing signs of convergence. But I do think that there is a growing awareness, among people across the political spectrum, that we really are in a deep pile of the stuff, and we need to work together if we hope to extricate ourselves. On both “the Left” and “the Right,” people are starting to see that they have been manipulated by the wealthy and well-connected Owners who make up the 1%, and waste no effort to ensure that the other 99% forever remain divided by dissension and distrust.

Nevertheless, the perceptual divides that exist in our world today are so vast that it can be difficult to even deal with in a rational manner. Everyone reading this essay has surely had at least a few experiences in which they found themselves glaring at a family member, neighbor or coworker with a mixture of confusion, anger and disbelief, trying to understand why they kept insisting that green is blue, or that up and down are the opposite of what you perceive them to be. The memes that drive our perception are no longer similar enough for us to even have a calm, cordial discussion about up and down, or black and white. Each of us, it seems, is living in their own Private Idaho.

We need to take a few steps back, find out where these perceptual divides came from, and figure out how to speak a common language once again. Unless we can develop a Holistic Consciousness that will allow both liberals and conservatives, Christians, Muslims and Atheists, whites, blacks, browns and pinks, to communicate and cooperate, how can we even hope to resolve the enormous challenges that we will face in the next century??? Finding common ground . . . learning to speak the same language . . .  looking at the big picture . . . working together for mutual benefits . . . Until we start developing these skills, it is pointless to talk about changing the system or overthrowing it. By the time any changes can be made, there wont be any system left to change, or any people left to change it.

We are all living in our own Private Idahoes. If we dont find a way get out of that state . . . that state we are in . . . then we will remain blind to the awful surprise that's waiting for us at the bottom of the bottomless blue blue blue blue pool.

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