Attention, Autonomy, & the Hijacking of Evolution: A Culture of Consciousness
For the vast majority of life on earth, biology, behavior, and cognitive function developed and optimized for survival. Advantageous mutations in physiology and behavior took, on average, 1 million years to stick.
Recent decades have dethroned survival as the unanimous object of evolution (for particular income-groups of developed countries, anyway), and collapsed the timeline of advantageous evolution from 1 million years, to as little as eight weeks in a time when the internet can spread knowledge of desirable mutations near-instantaneously.
Among the manifold, and most interesting factors at play is self-directed neuroplasticity. It’s an umbrella term for loads of things, but largely revolves around a simple idea: the conscious control of mental experience. Neuroplasticity — the real-time forming and reorganizing of neural pathways in response to experience — has likely occurred for millennia. But for most of this history, organisms had no agency in the process.
Not until the development of a complex self-model, the ‘I’ to which our continuum of experience clings, with the metacognitive ability to be conscious of consciousness itself, did organisms develop the potential to decide how, and why, to wire and rewire their brains.
Put simply, immaterial mental activity — the mind — causes material neural activity. If you control the mind, it builds the brain, which in turn builds the mind. This proves consequential for understanding ‘experience’. If experience is the raw input that gets neurons firing, and neural pathways (substructures underlying the mind) build themselves in accord with these firing patterns, Aldous Huxley’s claim rings true:
“Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.”
The primary inputs to neural development are not external things happening to us, but our mental reactions to those things. Experience is not the world happening to us, it’s us happening to ourselves.
If at every moment our brains are rewiring themselves in response to experience, then changing our mental reactions is to consciously participate in the process. The questions become ‘how’, and ‘for what’?
The ‘how’ to direct neuroplasticity is refreshingly uncontroversial: the active awareness and control of attention.
As early as the 19th century, Western thinkers spanning psychologists, philosophers, even mystics held attention as an, if not the, essential quality to be cultivated (Buddha beat them by a few years). William James, who coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’, writes:
“…the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will…And education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”
French philosopher Simone Weil echoes:
“Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.”
In any given moment, consciousness is a blurry rush of mostly unseen traffic. Our conscious minds are aware of but the dimmest horns from the teeming pathways underneath. Attention is to stalk a particular movement, to suspend and momentarily bring to rest a singular object from the clamor. Attention is not the object attended to, but the skill, precision, and endurance of the hunt.
The quality of our attention, both its object and how we interact with that object (sometimes referred to as the ‘stickiness’ of attentional objects), sculpts the subsequently formed neural pathways & connections.
The cultivation of attention, William James’ ‘education par excellence’ and Simone Weil’s ‘sole interest of studies’, is elsewhere known as meditation.
The ‘for what’ question is more difficult. What is the optimal brain configuration? Towards what end should we use attention to rebuild our brains? Philosopher, neuroscientist, and lifetime meditator (is there a better combo?), Thomas Metzinger, whom the New Yorker likened to a German Steve Jobs, poses the question:
“…the central issue can be expressed in a single question: What is a good state of consciousness?” (The Ego Tunnel)
If we can now take part in evolution, deciding what changes to induce in our physiology and mentality (an admittedly fuzzy separation), we have to consider our goals.
One possible answer, a kind of loophole in the question, is that we can optimize for the very means of optimization. That is to say, we use attention to optimize for greater attention, in a self-perpetuating loop (in much the same way that capitalism optimizes for growth without any greater terminus).
We might get away with this, to an extent. But it cannot be, like indefinite reliance upon finite resources, the final answer. William James adds:
“When we come down to the root of the matter, we see that [geniuses] differ from ordinary men less in the character of their attention than in the nature of the objects upon which it is successively bestowed.”
In a brilliant essay for Aeon Magazine, Metzinger makes the case that cultivating attention — including the frequency, breadth, and depth of its deployment — develops his ‘for what’: mental autonomy.
Mental autonomy refers to a host of introspective, attentional skills. It refers to the sources and ownership of mental content. It asks to what degree our conscious, rational minds are the originators of the objects in our attention.
For example: did I decide to spend the past 5 minutes day-dreaming about myself as conspicuously muscular, or did that arise from an advertisement I saw coupled with unconscious insecurities? How quickly can I terminate this invasive thought? How much agency do I have over what I think and focus on?
The outside world is littered with hopeful occupants of our mental space (including this essay). Internal forces, the deep unknown influences of the unconscious and subconscious mechanisms, are equally engaged in occupying that space. Developing mental autonomy has two functions. First, it enhances our insight into the sources of attentional fixations — a kind of introspective clarity. Second, it strengthens our ability to consciously wield attention; to decide what makes it into our mind’s eye, and keep unwanted fixations out — a fortification of the conscious, rational will.
“Now we can see mind-wandering for what it really is: a transient loss of mental autonomy…Statistically, mindfulness and mind-wandering are opposing constructs, and rational thought critically depends on the capacity for attentional self-control.”
After tracing the benefits and obstacles in developing both attention and mental autonomy, he returns to that same, simple, still practice: meditation.
“We can finally see more clearly what meditation is really about: over the centuries, the main goal has always been a sustained enhancement of one’s mental autonomy.”
But he doesn’t stop there. Meditation is one ancient practice for developing mental autonomy; today’s cutting-edge technology offers complementary methods.
Culture of Consciousness
Taking agency over these changes — physiological, neurological, even the way we mentally interact with experience — is unprecedented, historically speaking. Organisms used to develop advantageous mutations by chance, over generations. Now, we have the ability to research, experiment with, and select practices that induce advantageous mutations within the course of a single lifetime. We can, to a degree, take the reins of our own evolutionary trajectories.
To do so alone is a daunting project, but it needn’t be the burden of isolated individuals (though individual responsibility is paramount). Societies are groups of individuals, culture’s emerge from acted-upon values of the group, and politics (ideally) create conditions for the flourishing of these cultural values. American political discourse once aspired towards liberty, but we’ve numbed ourselves to it, largely ceased meaningful inquiries into what it means and how to best create conditions for its livelihood. Metzinger does not withhold cultural indictment:
“What is clear by now is that our societies lack systematic and institutionalised ways of enhancing citizens’ mental autonomy.”
He envisions a ‘culture of consciousness’ in which the cultivation of attention and mental autonomy are recognized as principle values.
“The current lack of a genuine consciousness culture is a social expression of the fact that the philosophical project of enlightenment has become stuck…” (The Ego Tunnel)
He looks towards recent developments to jumpstart the halted project of philosophical enlightenment. Innovations in neurotechnologies (like neurofeedback machines, lucid dream aids) and psychoactive therapies; revivals of ancient meditative practices; applications of virtual reality; initiatives for meditation & attention training in schools that reach brains in earlier and earlier stages of development; these and more may, as Metzinger suggests, “introduce us to a universe of self-exploration barely imaginable today.”
Natural selection addresses only one of a double-barreled subject: quantity of life. The neglected dimension, quality of life, may be our responsibility. Our conscious minds may have an evolutionary role to play. We aren’t merely organisms subject to evolution, we’re its potential charioteers.
In considering both public policies and individual actions, we can select for attention control, mindfulness, and mental autonomy. We can return our individual and political focus to a freedom that must begin within. A culture of consciousness is already emerging, we need only pay attention.