Archive for March, 2013

I initially came across the cycle of visions because I’d been trying to spot recurring patterns in cultural history — but I never expected to find a pattern that was so intricate or repeated in so exact a manner. Even after forty years, I’m still looking for answers to the question of how something that elaborate could have gotten started and been maintained.

I thought at first that the cycles might be driven by simple culture-wide alternations in mood — swings between idealism and cynicism or rationalism and romanticism of a kind that I was familiar with from the history of science fiction. But the more deeply I looked, the more complexity I encountered. The cycles represent a seamless blending of the emotional and the intellectual, the practical and the mystical, and no one of these components is sufficient to explain the extraordinary coordination among all of them.

That is why I’ve recently started exploring the idea that we humans have certain mental capacities that are hard-wired but also flexible enough to allow for a limitless number of different ways of dealing with reality.

A few entries back, I identified two such capacities that seem to go a long way towards explaining the nature of the visions. One is a mental map-making ability that enables us to construct virtual images of the world around us and share them with our fellows. The other is an openness to the sudden, intuitive flashes of higher knowledge that bring with them a certainty that we are part of a larger reality stretching beyond the boundaries of any map.

Taken in concert, these could account for the two most obvious aspects of the visions — their ability to structure our experiences within a multi-dimensional matrix of time, space, and causality, and also their persistent suggestions that there are vast areas of reality that remain outside our experience.

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This seems like a good time to pull the camera back and take in a broader field of view.

I’ve been speaking up to now as if the lives of our earliest ancestors were devoted entirely to constructing elaborate mind-maps of their experiences and then expanding them into visions of higher possibility. However, that isn’t how people live today, and it certainly wasn’t the case then.

For one thing, not all humans are equally imaginative. Some participate enthusiastically in bringing the latest visions into being, but a larger number couldn’t care less. And even the most creative among us spend much of their time caught up in the petty round of everyday routine.

So sharp is the division that we might be said to inhabit two different realities at once — call them the realm of understanding and the realm of instinct. And this split would have been even more profound at the start, when the life of the mind was still something new and limited and the greatest part of our existence was governed by deep, ancestral rhythms of sex and dominance.

Those rhythms apparently go back to the emergence of Homo erectus, some 1.8 million years ago. That was when we committed ourselves to a ground-dwelling way of live, lost our body hair and acquired our present set of secondary sexual characteristics, and gave up chimp-like mating patterns in favor of a system of permanent pair-bonding that enabled us to nurture our big-brained offspring through an extended period of infancy and childhood.

These same instincts are still hard-wired into us, but their expression has been greatly moderated by the moral teachings of a long succession of visions, each of which has done its part to make us a little less animal and a little more human.

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