map of the mouth of Tomales Bay
Life flows along the commonplace
– Carl Jung
Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
– Michael Pollen
Despite the American cult of individualism, I have never believed our identity was our idiosyncrasies and, despite my neophile tendencies, I have never believed that something was of value simply because it was new.
On the other hand, I don’t believe something is of value simply because it’s old—unless it’s really really old. That may be a different story.
Here follows a variant on Michael Pollen’s ‘eat what your great-grandmother ate’ test expressed not in a few generations but in tens or hundreds of millennia.
You are reading part of an intellectual wander aimed at building a framework for understanding the continuity between everyday experiences of awe and wonder and the type of ‘mystical’ experiences that are considered outside regular human experience (in my view mistakenly). And for considering the utility of such experiences.
My starting assumption is that this framework needs to address ego, instinct, and what are often termed nonordinary states. I have some theories about each of those. They will hopefully be modified in dialog with you and with the writing process itself.
First up, a bit of personal awe.
The time has come the Walrus said…
Many of you who know me know of my love of grilling oysters and, in particular grilling oysters on the beach. It feels deeply right to me.
Explaining my theory about why requires a digression.
In an undergraduate course in Feminist Literature, I read Elaine Morgan‘s, The Descent of Woman. This was 50 years ago. I have no clue at this point what Shulamith Firestone wrote about. Time has fuzzed that out. Many of Morgan’s points, however, remain vivid.
Her central argument is that we share a few key odd body traits not with our close cousins, the chimps, but with aquatic mammals. Examples include women’s subcutaneous fat and both genders’ minimal body hair…traits that overlap with dolphins, for example, but not most terrestrial mammals. She believes this argues for some interregnum of seashore or riparian evolution. Women, specifically, were at the leading edge of evolution during this period. (Men’s layer of fat is half the thickness of women’s, and men are typically furrier.)
One reason she stayed fresh in my mind was that ‘real’ anthropologists would remind me of her in occasional snide footnotes or asides. You could almost see the eye rolls. Not that they actually disputed her claims. That would be beneath them. So, irritating certain pros, and ideas I liked: two points in her favor:-).
Jump forward to 2015 or so. Wendy, Griffin, and I are at a lecture on human evolution at the California Academy of Science. It’s being given by Zeresenay Alemseged, Curator and Irvine Chair of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences and discoverer of Selam, a remarkably complete Australopithecus fossil skeleton that predates Leakey’s famous Lucy by 120,000 years.
Alemseged is discussing one of the big issues in human evolution: what provided enough calories to allow the step up in brain size between Australopithecus and Homo species. Brains burn a lot of energy. Other primate’s diets could not support a brain of our size. And evolution does not support the sort of look-forward activity that would require some Australopithecus species to decide, “Hey, we need bigger brains, let’s go look for different food.” The calories have to be there already to allow a boot-up mutation to work.
His answer is based on his recent work in what was at one time the coast of South Africa. Shellfish! They’re easy to gather in quantity, can be eaten cooked or raw, and protein is calorie-rich.
Creative Commons license via Wikimedia.
Australopithecus species had stone tools. Homo hablis used fire.
Soooo, oysters on the beach, baby! Step aside ‘man the hunter’. Enter proto-people with digging sticks on the shoreline. Elaine Morgan, fuck yeah:-).
(To set a bit of context. Both fire and stone tools predate the appearance of homo sapiens. An ancestor some 2.5M years ago used stone tools and one used fire 1M years ago give or take. All these dates keep getting pushed back. Homo sapiens likely clocks in at a mere .25M years to date.
Connecting it all up, there was an ancestor animal with a brain roughly 2/3rds the size of ours walking erect, using stone tools, cooking on a fire, and consuming shellfish. Likely there were adolescent hominids poking the fire with a stick. Shellfish have remained a high-quality staple for many cultures. The unceded Muwekma Ohlone land in nearby Emeryville contains a shell mound with the remains of millions of shellfish meals consumed over a recent two and half thousand years. )
Okay, evidence-wise, the oyster thing is a bit squishy. My feeling deeply grounded while cooking oysters at the beach…a feeling of ‘being all of one piece’… doesn’t exactly make it at the top of the hard evidence chart. And I’m not even sure how to articulate this within a theory of what’s commonly called instinct.
I’m starting with a metaphor. In my defense, thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn and George Lakoff have argued that metaphors, despite getting trashed by the likes of Newton and Bacon, can play a central role at the core of the clusters of scientific thinking and evidence that Kuhn termed paradigms. Math and hypothesis testing are key in the mix as well, of course, but both verbal and visual metaphors are important ‘tools to think with’.
My metaphor will be the mouth of a bay.
My friend Martin has warned me that the mouth of bays are particularly dangerous places to boat. You have currents, tides, waves, occasional whirlpools, and abrupt shifts in winds caused by the temperature differential between the waters and the shore. The mouth of Tomales Bay and Drake’s Estero are both good examples. Sometimes they’re relatively placid, and sometimes they’ll kick your ass. Every once in a while, they kill somebody.
You can paddle in a specific direction with knowledge, good equipment, and determination, but sometimes it is much more difficult than others, and if you take your eye off your destination, you can suddenly find yourself somewhere you did not intend to go.
Our typical view of instinct is of something like salmon swimming upstream– a compulsion or drive–which I think limits what we consider when we talk about its impact in humans.
The hormonal/neurotransmitter blend in our internal sea marks the intersection of our bodies and the environment and adds the push of currents and tides to our behavior. We transverse them occasionally wondering how we ended up somewhere.
We can consciously tweak our blood chemistry by, for example, blocking adenosine receptors with caffeine or seeking dopamine hits with a game on our phone. But mostly all this is mostly happening below the surface. Our tide and currents are at play against underwater surfaces that are not typically visible in an easy-to-interpret way. This interacts with built-in and learned schema that helps pattern what might be called raw perception into what we perceive…all that outside consciousness as well.
Something between me, oysters, cooking, and the beach is tweaking how I feel. A hormonal and neural balance is emerging in my inner sea. I contend that this is on a continuum with whatever else human instinct might be.
Side note: other reasons I like the water metaphor are, first, water flows downhill following a natural ‘instinctual’ gradient, and, second, water has depth. Things can be closer or further from consciousness.
More on instinct: positive and negative examples
In order to firm up and challenge this formulation, let’s look at a few more examples. Next post we’ll complicate things further by adding in Jung’s concepts of imago and archetype. Then try and tie it up into a tentative theory of instinct.
Thinking fast and slow
We should at least mention Daniel Kahneman’s fast thinking vs slow thinking. Kahneman describes fast thinking as ‘instinctual and emotive’. That would include knee-jerk responses, but he includes pretty much anything that happens below the surface: perceptual and cognitive biases, the automatic placement of objects in space, and even skills that have achieved automaticity.
Certainly, danger reactions that have to be faster than conscious ‘slow thinking’ can achieve should be termed instinct.
Instinct with a positive impact
Despite a shocking lack of research on grilling oysters, there’s a significant body of evidence for a similar activity: getting out into a natural environment.
As an outdoor nerd, I’ve been collecting citations. Here are just a few from my stash that focus on measurable metrics.
… experiments conducted by Japan’s Chiba University found that forest bathing lowered heart rate and blood pressure and brought down levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can wreak havoc on every system when large amounts circulate through the body. … These findings underscore that spending time in the forest is a medical intervention as well as an aesthetic and spiritual one, something scientists have long observed but haven’t been able to quantify.
2. The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer – American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2013, Geoffery Donovan et al.
There was an increase in mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness in counties infested with the emerald ash borer. The magnitude of this effect was greater as infestation progressed and in counties with above-average median household income. Across the 15 states in the study area, the borer was associated with an additional 6113 deaths related to illness of the lower respiratory system, and 15,080 cardiovascular-related deaths. [In other words, when the trees went away, health suffered.]
3. In search of features that constitute an “enriched environment” in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure – Nature, 2017, Simone Kuhn et al.
Our results reveal a significant positive association between the coverage of forest and amygdala integrity. We conclude that forests may have salutogenic effects on the integrity of the amygdala.
Brother Francis and Brother Sun, Giovanni Costa, 1878 – if there’s a patron saint of getting outdoors, it would be Francis:-)
Instinct with a negative impact
Regular readers know that I consider our Us vs. Them reaction to be a species of fast thinking with malign impact. (Links here, here, and here; it’s a long story.) Here are a few things more contained.
- Ebola Fears Helped The GOP In 2014 Election – Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, 6/14/2017
Newly published research finds fear of the infectious disease, which was widely in the news in the month before the election, increased voters’ intention to vote Republican. This effect was primarily found in red states, which means the outbreak effectively turned them a deeper shade of red.
“Disease outbreaks may influence voter behavior in two psychologically distinct ways: increased inclination to vote for politically conservative candidates, and increased inclination to conform to popular opinion,” writes a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Alec Beall.
For those working on a better class of conspiracy theories, note the Ebola panic faded shortly after the election.
Heightened anxiety makes people more prone to share claims on social media – Psy Post, 3/22/2023
…reporting on Believing and sharing misinformation, fact-checks, and accurate information on social media: The role of anxiety during COVID-19, 2021, Isabelle Freiling et al.
A new experimental study found that heightened anxiety makes people more prone to believe in various claims they are exposed to and to share them on social media. This was especially true for Republicans and did not depend on the accuracy or truthfulness of the claim. The study was published in New Media & Society.
In part #004, I intend to complicate things considerably.
We will explore a Jungian view of ‘instinct’. Here we find an unconscious realm populated by ‘imago’ and archetypes and inhabited by dark gods and talking animals. A realm from whence not just impulse but full-blown narratives arrive. A realm of entities that constantly tweak our felt gradients and that can override our everyday self quite dramatically—but that might also contain an instinct for wholeness and healing.
The driving question that Jung successfully answers: what form did instinct take as hardwired behavior evolved in beings such as ourselves that need room for the huge role of learning and culture?
Thanks for reading.