The Watchman’s Rattle

I haven’t read this book, but it looks interesting:

Costa pulls headline for today’s news to demonstrate how accelerating complexity quickly outpaces that rate at which the human brain can develop new capabilities. With compelling evidenced based on research in the rise and fall of Mayan, Khmer, and Roman empires, Costa shows how the tendency to find a quick solutions- leads to frightening long term consequence: Society’s ability to solve its most challenging, intractable problems becomes gridlocked, progress slows, and collapse ensues.

She writes,

When Darwin discovered the slow pace of evolutionary change (millions of years), he also explained what happens to us when the complexity of our problems exceeds the capabilities our brains have evolved to this point. It’s simple: when facts become incomprehensible, we switch to beliefs. In other words, all societies eventually become irrational when confronted with problems that are too complex, too large, too messy to solve.

Thankfully, we have two weapons earlier civilizations didn’t have: models for high failure rates and neuroscience….Until recently we haven’t been able to look under the skull and see what the brain does when a problem is highly complex. The good news? The brain has a secret weapon against complexity, a process neuroscientists are now calling “insight.” We are learning more everyday about insight’s ability to catch the brain up to complexity—the real antidote to reverting to beliefs as a default.

More on insight:

By monitoring their brain waves, he saw a pattern of high frequency neural activity in the right frontal cortex that identified in advance who would solve a puzzle through insight and who would not. It appeared up to eight seconds before the answer to a problem dawned on the test subject, Dr. Bhattacharya reported in the current edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

“It’s unsettling,” says Dr. Bhattacharya. “The brain knows but we don’t.”

In short, this is further evidence (if indirect) that the brain may just need to evolve to save us from extinction. To put it bluntly, our world is too fucked up to save it through conventional means, like politics – because if you fix one thing, you fuck up another. Global cooling comes to mind – if we address pollution, this may diminish the pollutant haze that’s protecting us from the sun’s rays, thereby increasing global warming. Therefore, people start looking to the Book of Revelation for explanation.

But if the thing that’s going to save us is “insight” – which is something neuroscientists don’t quite understand, then perhaps we’re getting into Pinchbeck territory. If people trade belief in facts to belief in God – who’s not to say that “insight” is some kind of divine influence. Even if our brains evolve to handle these complexities, “God” could have a hand in this – the spiritual missing link. Not claiming that’s the case, but it’s not off the wall to suggest that there’s a spiritual dimension to insight. Another one of those anomalous issues in science that has the scientists scratching their heads, and potentially causes the book’s thesis to collapse on itself, as the “facts” of insight are open to interpretation. It brings to mind Poincaré’s getting an insight while stepping onto a bus:

This led him to functions he named Fuchsian functions after Lazarus Fuchs but were later named automorphic functions. The crucial idea came to him as he was about to get onto a bus, as he relates in Science and Method (1908):-

At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformation that I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-euclidean geometry.

Why on earth did that happen? It’s interesting that she brings up the Mayans as the example of a failed culture, as the Mayans form so much basis to the idea that we’re about to take an evolutionary leap, a collective epiphany, so that maybe we’ll deal with these problems. Currently, the 2012 hypothesis is based on belief – and, frankly, my criticism of Pinchbeck’s latest book is that he’s not taking into account how we can fix today’s problems using the brain power we have today – there’s a feeling that the only thing that will save us is if we evolve (which I believe, but don’t want to believe). This book appears to be making a similar argument, absent the psychedelic insight – even if she might argue that our problems can be solved using the tools we have today. We have reached a point where not only are people’s belief systems screwed up, but their intuition is screwed up as well – as so many so oddly believe the opposite of what’s actually taking place: like – environmental damage is not a problem.

I haven’t read the book, so perhaps I’m missing a thread, but it would seem that belief is many people’s core insight. The insight, then, would have to be – wait, the God I’ve believed in all my life is not the real God. And that’s not likely to happen unless some major event knocks sense back into people. So unfortunately, though this appears to be a straighter take on the subject than Pinchbeck, I’m not sure if “insight” is the answer to our problems any more than “DMT insight,” unless – somehow – everyone was to take DMT at once, or some sort of paradigm shift in our brains elevated DMT levels naturally and the insight into how we can move forward hit everyone at once. But while so many people’s insight is – we shouldn’t care for the poor – it may be yet another way for intellectuals to solve problems without being able to implement the solutions.

Check out Rebecca Costa’s high-tech site.

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