Forever Young

on March 17, 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.

But although this would explain a lot about the visions, it still wouldn’t explain the cycles. Why don’t the visions just adapt gracefully as our knowledge grows more extensive and our lives more complex? Why is there instead an elaborate round of old visions failing and new ones arising to take their place?

That question seems to demand the assumption of at least one more fundamental aspect to human nature — and I may have hit on it in the previous entry when I pointed to the plasticity of the adolescent brain.

That plasticity is well-known to brain researchers. For example, a recent study of mice revealed that “the flip of a single molecular switch helps create the mature neuronal connections that allow the brain to bridge the gap between adolescent impressionability and adult stability.” But as anyone who has watched kittens turn into cats is aware, that switchover is normally final and irreversible.

It’s possible, however, that the system works somewhat differently in humans. Although as adults we do not enjoy the extreme mental flexibility of childhood, we do retain a considerable ability to learn new things, change careers in midstream, and alter our behavior when circumstances require. What’s more, periods of particular openness to change appear to recur at regular intervals throughout our lives.

Shortly before I stumbled upon the intricacies of the cycles, Alexei and I had identified a pattern of what we called “age crises” in the careers of science fiction writers and other creative individuals. We had noticed that quantum leaps in both ability and social status seemed to occur at certain specific ages — 19, 27, 34, 45, and perhaps in the early 60’s. We also found that the protagonists of many stories seemed to be going through equivalent crises, marked by a dissolution of personal identity and its remaking on a higher level of achievement.

At some point, it struck me that the cultural cycles might reflect this same pattern of personal growth, only carried out on a collective basis. This would mean that each dominant partnership reflects the norms of the mature brain, while the phases between partnerships express a turning towards more adolescent modes of thought and action.

There are significant differences between the personal and the communal, of course. For one thing, not everyone is capable of making the switch, which is why the periods between the collapse of one dominant partnership and the rise of the next are often marked by high levels of conflict. However, I believe that most people’s brains really do rewire a bit at such times — and that there is also an increased willingness to take the ideas and attitudes of young people seriously and look to them for guidance.

This can be seen in our own culture, which is currently suffering through a protracted social and environmental crisis. The reigning system of free-market capitalism has negated the social contract which once promised a decent life to anyone who contributed their share, and at the same time it has placed absolute power in the hands of those who have much to gain and little to lose by continuing on a course of ecological devastation.

In response, world-wide protest movements have sprung up, consisting mainly of young people along with a handful of like-minded elders, and have made known their determination to resist the present system of cutthroat competition and ruthless exploitation. In place of the faltering democracy-and-chaos partnership, these dissidents are counting on the newer holism and horizontalism visions to offer a roadmap to a world of environmental and social justice.

I fully expect there to be fundamental changes in accordance with those visions over the next five to ten years. But just as with individual life crises, once the immediate problems are resolved, there will be a growing desire to return to stability, consistency, and predictability — and at that point, a new partnership will be constructed that will once more hold the adolescent brain in check.

This pattern has repeated over and over since before the start of recorded history, but the question that intrigues me is when it might have gotten started. And my best guess is that it happened following the onset of the ice age of 200,000 years ago.

Much like the present moment, that was a time when humanity was buffeted by an environmental crisis that was made deeper and more insoluble by an accompanying social crisis. On one hand, the very survival of our species was under threat as the earth grew cold, the deserts advanced, and food became scarcer and less nutritious. And on the other, as more recent history amply attests, the desperate struggle to survive would have led to a catastrophic breakdown of accepted norms of cooperation and mutual support and their replacement by a dog-eat-dog world in which only the strongest and most ruthless prevailed.

There was no dominant partnership back then to stand in the way of change, but instead there were the ancient instinctual ways that were no longer adequate. And then, as now, the answers came largely from the young people and were based on the first two visions — the transformation vision, which provided new ways of relating to the physical world, and the kinship vision, which offered a more resilient social contract.

However, if this moment of awful desperation was the very first time we needed to resort to the resources of the adolescent brain, I suspect it may have involved a more radical change in the very meaning of being human than any that have followed it since.

Our evidence for the early evolution of our own species is sparse at best. In just the last few months, a recalibration of the genetic clock has moved our oldest common ancestors back from about 200,000 years ago to perhaps 340,000 years ago or even further. But there are no fossils to fill in that vast stretch of time.

The earliest known Homo sapiens skulls date to 160,000 years ago and are all but indistinguishable from our own. Before that, there are only the relatively small-brained and heavy-browed remains of our archaic forebears. And there is no sign at all of how we got from there to here.

It seems possible, however, that we may have experienced one final burst of physical evolution following the start of the ice age. Although the details are uncertain, our DNA suggests that there was a significant population bottleneck and that everyone alive today is descended from a small group of just a few thousand individuals who barely managed to survive along the coasts of East Africa.

It also appears that the survivors of this great dieback may have been sturdier and more adaptable than those who preceded them, since once the climate warmed again, they quickly spread out across the world. They not only rejoined their long-lost cousins who had spent the long winter in the more temperate climes of southern Africa but also expanded into the Middle East and beyond.

This suggests to me that the crisis may have led to a final change in brain organization, one which gave us the ability to retain an adolescent-like flexibility into maturity and to revert to it even more strongly at times of crisis.

And that same change also enabled the visions to penetrate daily life in a way they never had before. Until then, they may have been like what is called go-to-church-on-Sunday religion — a source of inspiration and social harmony, but divorced from practical affairs and lacking the power to change the world.

But when all else had failed, the visions suddenly became the source of salvation — of new technologies, new ways of living, and new social institutions. At that point, the world began to change — and it would change over and over again.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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