What the world’s most analytical detective has to do with exploring the fringes of spiritual life.
By Maria Popova
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may be best-known as the creator of the iconic Sherlock Holmes stories, but in this rare newsreel from 1930, recorded mere weeks before the author passed away, he talks about something unexpected: After telling the story of how Sherlock came to life, Conan Doyle delves into his profound fixation on spiritualism and the psychic world. It’s particularly fascinating to see a man whose literary thought hinged on analytical insight and objectivity explore the nebulous, shape-shifting corners of the human mind.
People ask me, will I write any more Sherlock Holmes stories and I certainly don’t think it’s at all probable. But as I grow older, the psychic subject always grows in intensity and one becomes more earnest upon it, and I should think that my few remaining years will be probably devoted much more in that direction than in the direction of literature. My principal thoughts are that i should extend, if I can, that knowledge, which I have on psychic matters, and spread it as far as I can to those who have been less fortunate.
I don’t for one moment suppose that I’m taking it upon my self to say that I’m the inventor of spiritualism, or that I’m even the principal exponent of it. There are many great mediums, many great psychical researchers, investigators of all sorts — all that I can do is be a gramophone on the subject, to go about, to meet people face to face, to try to make them understand that this thing is not the foolish thing, which is so often represented, but that it really is a great philosophy and, as I think, the basis for all religious improvement in the future of the human race.” ~ Arthur Conan Doyle
“We’ve barely begun to understand our place in the cosmos. As we continue to look out from our planet and contemplate the nature of reality, we should remember that there is a mystery right here where we stand.”
By Maria Popova
“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe,” the aging Marcus Aurelius instructed.
“Any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides,” the young Virginia Woolf meditated in her diary two millennia later. “It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.”
Two years earlier, in the first year of the twentieth century and the final year of his life, the uncommonly minded Canadian psychiatrist Maurice Bucke had formalized this notion in his visionary, controversial book Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, which influenced generations of thinkers ranging from Albert Einstein to Abraham Maslow to Steve Jobs.
Science was young then — it still is — and the world was old, and the mind was old, its dwelling-place practically unchanged since the cranium of early Homo sapiens began accommodating a brain comparable to our own some three hundred thousand years ago. With neuroscience yet to be born, it fell on the poets and the philosophers to meditate on the complexities of consciousness — the sole valve between reality and our experience, made of the same matter as the stars. Today, neuroscience remains a young and insecure science, as crude as Galilean astronomy — and as revolutionary in the revelations it has already contoured, yet to be shaded in with the nuances of understanding that might, just might, one day illuminate the fundaments of consciousness.
Until that day comes, we have a panoply of theories about what it is that flickers on the cave walls of the cranium to irradiate our entire experience of life and reality. The most compelling — and the most controversial — of them are what Annaka Harris examines with equal parts openhearted curiosity and intelligent consideration in Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind (public library).
Drawing on the intricate neurological processes and disorders that shape and misshape our conscious experience, on the behavior-altering effects various parasites have on their hosts, and on her own experience of staggering changes in preference, habit, and temperament on the hormonal cocktail of pregnancy, Harris writes:
The idea that “I” am the ultimate source of my desires and actions begins to crumble [and] it’s hard to see how our behavior, preferences, and even choices could be under the control of our conscious will in any real sense. It seems much more accurate to say that consciousness is along for the ride — watching the show, rather than creating or controlling it. In theory, we can go as far as to say that few (if any) of our behaviors need consciousness in order to be carried out. But at an intuitive level, we assume that because human beings act in certain ways and are conscious — and because experiences such as fear, love, and pain feel like such powerful motivators within consciousness — our behaviors are driven by our awareness of them and otherwise would not occur.
And yet, she observes, many of the actions we attribute to consciousness and hold up as proof of it could, in theory, take place without consciousness, in a machine programmed to operate by logical sequences resulting in those selfsame actions. (That, after all, is the most thrilling and terrifying question of artificial intelligence.) She posits a curious meta-exception:
Consciousness seems to play a role in behavior when we think and talk about the mystery of consciousness. When I contemplate “what it’s like” to be something, that experience of consciousness presumably affects the subsequent processing taking place in my brain. And almost nothing I think or say when contemplating consciousness would make any sense coming from a system without it.
When I talk about the mystery of consciousness — referring to something I can distinguish and wonder about and attribute (or not) to other entities — it seems highly unlikely that I would ever do this, let alone devote so much time to it, without feeling the experience I am referring to (for the qualitative experience is the entire subject, and without it, I can have no knowledge of it whatsoever). And when I turn these ideas over in my mind, the fact that my thoughts are about the experience of consciousness suggests that there is a feedback loop of sorts and that consciousness is affecting my brain processing.
What emerges is the intimation that we are not merely machines that think — after all, many of our machines now “think” in the sense of processing information and adapting it to govern behavior — but machines that think about thinking, lending our biochemical machinery an edge of the miraculous not (yet) explicable by our science, which remains our mightiest technology of thought. She observes:
Most of our intuitions about what qualifies as evidence of consciousness affecting a system don’t survive scrutiny. Therefore, we must reevaluate the assumptions we tend to make about the role consciousness plays in driving behavior, as these assumptions naturally lead to the conclusions we draw about what consciousness is and what causes it to arise in nature. Everything we hope to uncover through consciousness studies — from determining whether or not a given person is in a conscious state, to pinpointing where in the evolution of life consciousness first emerged, to understanding the exact physical process that gives birth to conscious experience — is informed by our intuitions about the function of consciousness.
Where our intuitions break down most dramatically and where the breakdown most disorients us is in what may be the most poorly branded and therefore poorly understood theory of consciousness: panpsychism.
Coined in the sixteenth century by the Italian philosopher and proto-scientist Francesco Patrizi, whose work inspired Galileo, from the Greek pan (“all”) and psyche (“mind” or “spirit”), panpsychism is the idea that all matter is endowed with the capacity for subjective experience of immaterial quality — the sort of experience we call, in its expression familiar to us, consciousness.
In the epochs since, as the world slowly began shedding the cloth of the supernatural and began seeking in mystical notions a kernel of secular and scientifically verifiable truth, panpsychism came closer and closer to information theory and the modern scientific understanding of the physicality of the universe. (There are echoes of panpsychism in the great theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s famous “It-for-Bit” theory, asserting that “observer-participancy gives rise to information” because “all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”)
With an eye to the muddling, misconstrual, and ample misapplications of panpsychism as a framework that could broaden the conversation on consciousness but instead often shuts it down, Harris does the essential and courageous public service of lens-clearing:
Those of us who want to push this conversation forward have an important obligation to clearly distinguish panpsychic views from the false conclusions people tend to draw from them — namely, that panpsychism somehow justifies or explains a variety of psychic phenomena — following from the incorrect assumption that consciousness must entail a mind with a single point of view and complex thoughts. Ascribing some level of consciousness to plants or inanimate matter is not the same as ascribing to them human minds with wishes and intentions like our own. Anyone who believes the universe has a plan for us or that he can consult with his “higher self” for medical advice should not feel propped up by the modern view of panpsychism.
Unfortunately, it seems quite hard for us to drop the intuition that consciousness equals complex thought. But if consciousness is in fact a more basic aspect of the universe than previously believed, that doesn’t suddenly give credence to your neighbor’s belief that she can communicate telepathically with her ficus tree. In actuality, if a version of panpsychism is correct, everything will still appear to us and behave exactly as it already does.
Such appropriations of panpsychism are to the study of consciousness what the pseudoscience of phrenology is to neuroscience — contours of promising regions of exploration on our ever-evolving map of reality, shaded in with human bias. Rather than having the egalitarian view of consciousness-across-matter they seek to espouse, these misinterpretations impose on the concept of consciousness self-referential standards rife with human exceptionalism, making of nature an uncanny valley that betrays both nature and our humanity.
Paradoxically, this misunderstanding of panpsychism is often used as an argument against panpsychism itself, not against its misunderstanding. But to actually consider a lichen or a quark endowed with a measure of consciousness is to recognize that its experience cannot, by structural definition, be anything close to our subjective human experience of consciousness — our qualia and their byproduct: the sense of self.
Considering what might be the greatest intuitive challenge to psychism, known as the “combination problem” — how the small constituents of matter, each the carrier of primitive consciousness, can combine into larger entities that have new and different consciousnesses, including ours — Harris observes that much of the challenge stems from a reflexive confusion:
For many scientists and philosophers, the combination problem presents the biggest obstacle to accepting any description of reality that includes consciousness as a widespread feature. However, the obstacle we face here once again seems to be a case of confusing consciousness with the concept of a self, as philosophers and scientists tend to speak in terms of a “subject” of consciousness. The term “self” is usually used to describe a more complex set of psychological characteristics — including qualities such as self-confidence or a capacity for empathy — but a “subject” still describes an experience of self in its most basic form… Perhaps it’s wrong to talk about a subject of consciousness, and it’s more accurate to instead talk about the content available to conscious experience at any given location in space-time, determined by the matter present there — umwelts applied not just to organisms, but to all matter, in every configuration and at every point in space-time.
Iris Murdoch — one of the most brilliant and underappreciated philosophical minds our species has produced — provided a potent antidote to the combination problem in her lovely notion of unselfing, rooted in the recognition that “the self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion.” In this light, the combination problem becomes decidedly less problematic — without the notion of a subject, a concrete entity to be combined with another concrete entity, there is no combining to be done. Consciousness becomes both the vessel of experience and the content of experience, and transcends both — more field than form.
After citing research on split-brain patients, in whom mental function and the contents of consciousness can be divided in astonishing ways, Harris writes:
[Without a self], consciousness could persist as is, while the character and content change, depending on the arrangement of the specific matter in question. Maybe content is sometimes shared across large, intricately connected regions and sometimes confined to very small ones, perhaps even overlapping. If two human brains were connected, both people might feel as if the content of their consciousness had simply expanded, with each person feeling a continuous transformation from the content of one person to the whole of the two, until the connection was more or less complete. It’s only when you insert the concepts of “him,” “her,” “you,” and “me” as discrete entities that the expanding of content for any area of consciousness (or even multiple areas merging) becomes a combination problem.
Harris ends her rigorous reconnaissance mission of the terra semicognita of consciousness studies with the telescopic perspective that is the poetry of possibility:
Humanity is young, and we’ve barely begun to understand our place in the cosmos. As we continue to look out from our planet and contemplate the nature of reality, we should remember that there is a mystery right here where we stand.
A century ago — a century during which humanity split the atom, unraveled the mysteries of our genetic code, and heard the sound of spacetime for the first time — quantum theory originator Max Planck insisted that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature… because… we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” In the first year of that century, Lord Kelvin took the podium at the British Association of Science to declare that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics,” while at the same moment, a young patent clerk in Zurich was incubating the ideas that would converge into his theory of relativity, forever transfiguring our elemental understanding of reality. It is our human nature to consider the inconceivable impossible, again and again mistaking the parameters of the conceivable for the perimeter of the possible. But it is also the nature of the human mind — that material miracle of electrical and poetic impulses — to transcend its own limits of imagination again and again, inventing new parameters of thought that broaden the perimeter of the possible until it becomes real.
Because our attention shapes our entire experience of the world — this, after all, is the foundation of all Eastern traditions of mindfulness, which train the attention in order to anneal our quality of presence — the objects of our attention end up, in a subtle but profound way, shaping who we are.
Because there is hardly a condition of consciousness that focuses the attention more sharply and totally upon its object than love, what and whom we love is the ultimate revelation of what and who we are.
That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a series of essays originally written for the Madrid newspaper El Sol and posthumously published in English as On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — a singular culmination of Ortega’s philosophic investigation of Western culture’s blind spots, biases, and touching self-delusions about love, that is, about who and what we are.
Defining love as “that sense of spiritual perception with which one seems to touch someone else’s soul, to feel its contours, the harshness or gentleness of its character,” Ortega notes that love reveals “the most intimate and mysterious preferences which form our individual character.” He writes:
There are situations, moments in life, in which, unawares, the human being confesses great portions of his ultimate personality, of his true nature. One of these situations is love. In their choice* of lovers [human beings] reveal their essential nature. The type of human being which we prefer reveals the contours of our heart. Love is an impulse which springs from the most profound depths of our beings, and upon reaching the visible surface of life carries with it an alluvium of shells and seaweed from the inner abyss. A skilled naturalist, by filing these materials, can reconstruct the oceanic depths from which they have been uprooted.
Defining attention as “the function charged with giving the mind its structure and cohesion,” Ortega places it at the center of the experience of love:
“Falling in love” is a phenomenon of attention.
Our spiritual and mental life is merely that which takes place in the zone of maximum illumination. The rest — the zone of conscious inattention and, beyond that, the subconscious — is only potential life, a preparation, an arsenal or reserve. The attentive consciousness can be regarded as the very space of our personalities. We can just as well say that that thing dislodges a certain space in our personalities.
Nothing characterizes us as much as our field of attention… This formula might be accepted: tell me where your attention lies and I will tell you who you are.
“Falling in love,” initially, is no more than this: attention abnormally fastened upon another person. If the latter knows how to utilize his privileged situation and ingeniously nourishes that attention, the rest follows with irremissible mechanism.
Paradoxically, the cultural narrative handed down to us by the Romantics postulates that love broadens and consecrates our awareness of life: Suddenly, everything is illuminated; suddenly, everything sings. Anyone who has ridden the intoxicating elation of early love has felt this, and yet Ortega intimates that this is an illusion of consciousness, masking the actual phenomenon at work, which is rather the opposite — everything is tinted with aspects of the beloved, blurring and tuning out the details that give the world its actuality. Ortega writes:
The person in love has the impression that the life of his consciousness is very rich. His reduced world is more concentrated. All of his psychic forces converge to act upon one single point, and this gives a false aspect of superlative intensity to his existence.
At the same time, that exclusiveness of attention endows the favored object with portentous qualities… By overwhelming an object with attention and concentrating on it, the consciousness endows it with an incomparable force of reality. It exists for us at every moment; it is ever present, there alongside us, more real than anything else. The remainder of the world must be sought out, by laboriously deflecting our attention from the beloved… The world does not exist for the lover. His beloved has dislodged and replaced it… Without a paralysis of consciousness and a reduction of our habitual world, we could never fall in love.
Attention is the supreme instrument of personality; it is the apparatus which regulates our mental lives. When paralyzed, it does not leave us any freedom of movement. In order to save ourselves, we would have to reopen the field of our consciousness, and to achieve that it would be necessary to introduce other objects into its focus to rupture the beloved’s exclusiveness. If in the paroxysm of falling in love we could suddenly see the beloved in the normal perspective of our attention, her magic power would be destroyed. In order, however, to gain this perspective we would have to focus our attention upon other things, that is, we would have to emerge from our own consciousness, which is totally absorbed by the object that we love.
Nothing illustrates this contracting of the lens more clearly than the discomposing experience of emerging from the somnambulant state of in-loveness — an experience familiar to anyone who has ever surfaced from an infatuation or has deepened an infatuation into a calm and steady love. Ortega writes:
When we emerge from a period of falling in love we feel an impression similar to awakening and emerging from a narrow passage crammed with dreams. Then we realize that normal perspective is broader and airier, and we become aware of all the hermeticism and rarefaction from which our impassioned minds suffered. For a time we experience the moments of vacillation, weakness, and melancholy of convalescence.
But despite its potential pitfalls, love remains at once the most interior and the most influential experience of our personhood. In a sentiment evocative of that exquisite line from The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Ortega considers how love, so invisible yet so essential a feature of our humanity, polishes the lens of our entire worldview:
The things which are important lie behind the things that are apparent.
Probably, there is only one other theme more inward than love: that which may be called “metaphysical sentiment,” or the essential, ultimate, and basic impression which we have of the universe. This acts as a foundation and support for our other activities, whatever they may be. No one lives without it, although its degree of clarity varies from person to person. It encompasses our primary, decisive attitude toward all of reality, the pleasure which the world and life hold for us. Our other feelings, thoughts, and desires are activated by this primary attitude and are sustained and colored by it. Of necessity, the complexion of our love affairs is one of the most telling symptoms of this primogenital sensation. By observing our neighbor in love we are able to deduce his vision or goal in life. And this is the most interesting thing to ascertain: not anecdotes about his existence, but the card upon which he stakes his life.
And yet our culture has a peculiar willful blindness to how love shapes life and the particular expression of aliveness that is our creative work — a peculiar denial of the elemental fact that because we love with everything we are, our loves imprint everything we make. (I wrote Figuring in large part as an antidote to this dangerous delusion, exploring how the loves at the center of great lives shaped the way in which those persons of genius in turn shaped our understanding of the world with their scientific and artistic work.) Ortega shares in this distaste for the cultural diminishment of love as a driving force of creative work. Observing that many persons of extraordinary creative power have tended to take their loves “more seriously than their work” — the very work for which they are celebrated as geniuses, and a choice for which they have suffered derision by their contemporaries and by posterity — he admonishes against this common cultural judgment:
It is curious that only those incapable of producing great work believe that the contrary is the proper conduct: to take science, art, or politics seriously and disdain love affairs as mere frivolities.
A personality experiences in the course of its life two or three great transformations, which are like different stages of the same moral trajectory… Our innermost being seems, in each of these two or three phases, to rotate a few degrees upon its axis, to shift toward another quadrant of the universe and to orient itself toward new constellations.
A resaning antidote to one of the most dangerous and damaging romantic myths in our culture.
By Maria Popova
All love is asymmetry. Since love is not a state but a skill to be mastered, not a noun but a verb, all loving is the skillful harmonizing of asymmetries across the scales of personhood and preference between those involved. Asymmetries — of taste and temperament, of habit and sensibility — are not evidence of incompatibility but a natural function of two separate consciousnesses, each with an incomplete knowledge of the other, each half-opaque to itself, trying to find joy and understanding together. Almost all asymmetries, faced with sufficient tenderness and mutual respect, can become complementarities that strengthen rather than weaken the bond.
The one asymmetry deadly to love is the asymmetry of willingnesses — one person willing (to forgive, to undefensively admit error, to do the dishes, to hold gentle space for imperfection) and the other unwilling. An asymmetry of willingnesses at the outset of a potential relationship, before the mutuality of gladness we call love has even begun, is what we term rejection.
Romantic rejection is among the most acute and all-consuming forms of pain we can suffer, for it is an unfortunate feature of our psyche — even the most considered and contemplative psyche — to extrapolate from every experience of unrequited love, in a particular situation by a particular person, the awful postulate that we are not lovable, in the essence of our being.
How to move through the pain of rejection with minimal suffering, without repressing the awful feelings but also without mistaking them for facts about the larger landscape of love and lovability, is what the reliably preceptive and soulful Alain de Botton explores in this animated survival guide to what can feel, at its worst, abjectly unsurvivable:
But the heart-savaging asymmetry of willingnesses is not something reserved for the dawn of love. One of our culture’s most dangerous romantic myths is the idea that rejection and the anxiety about it vanish from the psychic horizon as soon as the two hopeful parallel willingnesses entwine into an actual relationship. That myth, and how to live with the truth behind it, is what De Botton explores in a portion of his altogether wonderful book The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the source of his revelatory and redemptive take on emotional intelligence and what existential maturity really means. He writes:
One of the odder features of relationships is that, in truth, the fear of rejection never ends. It continues, even in quite sane people, on a daily basis, with frequently difficult consequences — chiefly because we refuse to pay it sufficient attention and aren’t trained to spot its counter-intuitive symptoms in others. We haven’t found a winning way to keep admitting just how much reassurance we need.
Because it can be unbearably vulnerable-making to admit our own tender need for assurance, because pride is the antipode of vulnerability and therefore the great enemy of meaningful connection, we often find ourselves too proud to ask for what we need openly. Instead, we resort to those sometimes endearing but mostly infuriating childish tactics of scanning for and protecting against rejection — withdrawal as a means of manipulating the beloved into paying more attention, hyperfocus on their every move and every Instagram post as paranoid evidence-gathering to confirm our dread of their diminishing willingness, and the crown jewel of emotional immaturity: the sulk.
Whether we cope with the ongoing threat of rejection by growing avoidant or anxious, our coping strategies are ultimately more likely to damage the relationship than to protect it, to effect rejection rather than to ward it off.
The only real solution is greater courage of candor and vulnerability. De Botton writes:
If this harsh, graceless behavior could be truly understood for what it is, it would be revealed not as rejection or indifference, but as a strangely distorted, yet very real, plea for tenderness.
A central solution to these patterns is to normalize a new and more accurate picture of emotional functioning: to make it clear just how predictable it is to be in need of reassurance, and at the same time, how understandable it is to be reluctant to reveal one’s dependence. We should create room for regular moments… when we can feel unembarrassed and legitimate about asking for confirmation… We should uncouple the admission of need from any associations with the unfortunate and punitive term “neediness.”