After a recent column about nationalism and the first astronauts to see the entire earth from the moon, a reader sent me an article about the “overview effect” inducing a “cognitive shift.” Is the term is a misnomer, and more accurately refers to a shift in consciousness itself?
The article described a radical change in consciousness that many astronauts have experienced after “seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life hanging in the void.”
This “cognitive shift” is not to be confused with the cognitive revolution that occurred about 100,000 years ago. At that time, anatomically modern but technologically and culturally primitive humans underwent a sudden cognitive leap, one that enabled the much more complex stone and wood technology, and the diverse languages, cultures and art humans have known since.
Speaking of the “overview effect,” it has become increasingly difficult not to see the Earth in terms of humanity as a whole, and humanity in terms of the Earth as a whole. Yet, “I am a nationalist” has become the rallying cry of atavistic presidents and pundits alike.
The cognitive shift that occurred in East Africa about ten millennia ago gave rise to a new species of humans, Homo sapiens, from which all 7.7 billion people now on earth are descended.
If we could time travel an average baby from before this shift occurred, it would grow up to be what we call cognitively impaired. But if we could time travel an average infant from a thousand years after the cognitive revolution occurred, it would be of normal intelligence in our time.
This cognitive revolution in consciousness was unconscious, and increased the intellectual capacity of humans. Evolutionary pressure brought it about, since the proto-human population had shrunk to mere thousands, probably due to a super-volcano in Indonesia.
If the cognitive shift that produced modern humans had not occurred, the human species may well have become extinct. The next evolutionary leap, one that humans are messily undergoing at present, is fully conscious. (It seems the conscious are becoming more conscious, while the unconscious are becoming more unconscious.)
So cosmic consciousness can only occur through conscious awareness. The psychological revolution is a true awakening of consciousness, depending on enough individuals igniting attention and insight within them to ignite a revolution in consciousness.
This revolution is essentially religious in character. Unfortunately, the word ‘religious’ evokes organized religions, which is the last thing I’m pointing at. (On the other hand, the word ‘spiritual’ evokes ‘personal journey,’ which is equally false.)
The root meaning of the word ‘religious’ is ‘to bind together.’ It also has a connotation of giving priority to what is whole and holy, two words that have the same root. It’s in these senses that we use the term religious revolution.
The essential difference between cognitive consciousness and cosmic consciousness is the quality and degree of attention and awareness.
‘Self-consciousness’ in Homo sap refers to consciousness of self, and in recent years giving pride of place to ‘me.’ Self-knowing in Homo sapiens on the other hand refers to ending self-centered activity through unmediated awareness of one’s sensations, emotions and thoughts in relationship to the Earth and others.
In deeper meditative states, the flow of insights suddenly opens to a state of insight. One is not just a human being having insights, however many and profound, but a being of insight. Death is seen and felt as inseparable from life, and death and life are experienced as a single, seamless movement occurring every moment.
The human brain has the capacity to awaken not just more insights to add to scientific knowledge, but the state of insight allowing us to live in harmony with the Earth and the universe. Knowledge and science cannot save humanity; fully awakening insight for its own sake (not in the service of knowledge) can and will.
Will this shift in consciousness give rise to a new species of human beings? An academic philosopher once told me that I might be right about a leap in human evolution, but that such a transmutation “would produce tremendous conflict between the two human species.”
The new species of human beings would understand how to deal with the old species if humans however. That’s not to imply any kind of eugenics, or even an attitude of superiority. Rather, the intelligence of insight in the new species of human beings would not become caught in the petty conflicts of the old species of humans.
Cosmic consciousness is not, as so-called realists suppose, some kind of head-in-the-clouds mindset that doesn’t deal with realities here on earth. Even so, it could take hundreds of years to bring it about. But that’s a blink of an eye even in human evolutionary terms.