Assumption is the mother of all £@%& ups:  Upgrading cognition with The Awe Workout

So says the villain (played by Eric Bogosian) in a Steven Seagal Film (Under Siege 2 for the cognoscenti). Apologies for lowering the intellectual bar but there is a valid point.  Our view of reality is extremely susceptible to being painted by our own expectations, biases and fallability.  Assumptions may be described in terms of ‘habitual patterns of thought’. The brain is very effective at laying down neural pathways, ‘grooves’ in the record of experience as it were. And on which the stylus of perception will ‘play’ out a version of reality that the brain can sample at the desired rpm. The grooves become deeper over time and the more the record is played. In this vinyl-ly themed analogy, it is very hard to shake up a world view that has become etched in the perceiver’s consciousness, and the bigger picture will be informed by the resultant soundtrack.

The brain, the so-called Most Complex Object in the Known Universe TM seeks to reduce complexity, to find signals in noise, patterns in chaos, to render order from entropy.  It ‘wants’ to become as efficient as possible, to expend as little energy as necessary, and to reduce inherent uncertainty down to high predictive accuracy.  It does this in order to facilitate movement of the species/individual through the world ‘out there’ in order to glean metabolic sustenance, furtherance of itself and the collective. But it can get itself stuck in a rut. The record repeats and the riff becomes the song as it replays endlessly in a fractured loop. And this of course is not a healthy state of affairs in which it can grow and prosper, or innovate and thrive on novelty.  What is required is an upgrade of the software, jumping to a more Millenially relevant metaphor.

Hearkening back to transformationally accomplished historical times, pomp and circumstance was thematically prevalent in the arts, music,  in the works of  Beethoven, Mozart and their ilk, Renaissance architecture and so on. Symphonies expanded the consciousness, the Common Man could stand and contemplate the Heavenly in great Gothic cathedrals.  Michaelangelo’s cherry on this ineffable cake was to draw the eyes up to the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel and meld the dual sensibilities of Art and Achitecture into an immersive experience of unity between Mankind and Cosmos through the creative, and transcendent act.

Equally, in the Romantic literary Era of the nineteenth century, a movement, prefiguring todays’ eco-planetary / sustainability mindset, poets, novelists, artists urged towards embracing the aesthetic and one-ness with nature.  Wordsworth and Coleridge wandered lonely and spaced out, through the English Lake District, even embracing the risk and fear of precipitous activities such as rock climbing, before such a pursuit was given definition.  Again pre-empting the modern propensity to find Zen at the rockface, and the modern day goal of achieving ‘flow’.

This leads to the main thrust of this piece, concerning, the pursuit of the optimal brain-state for innovation, accomplishment and the liberation from assumptions.  Through the accessing of AWE.  Awe can be defined as a complex and intense emotional state that can give rise to transcendent feelings that go beyond normal conceptions of the world. This may be elicited by viewing great works of art, standing in a vast space (such as an iconic building) or on the edge of a spectacular vista (such as the Grand Canyon, or a mountain top).  It is characterised often by a unique viewpoint outwith one’s ordinary experience.  NASA’s ‘Earthrise’ photo of the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ of Earth from the Moon is an iconic example of a profoundly moving perspective with deep consequences. In itself this picture shifted global consciousness, highlighting the smallness and insignificance of our whole planet in the cosmos.  The experience of awe can transform mindset towards a more connected sense of unity with others, and with the ecosystem by which we are sustained.

The importance of awe and the seeking out of this from time to time pertains to the earlier assertion that assumption is a perceptual blind alley that is hard to escape once it’s pattern is laid down in the brain.  As addictive creatures reliant on habitual tendencies to navigate ‘effortlessly’ through life, once assumption takes insidious hold, our worldview becomes all encompassing. And at the same negating of alternatives. And the consequences of that idea are played out daily on news channels…

What Awe can give is a route to personal and collective transformation. It does this by  addressing a need for ‘accommodation’. What this means, is when confronted with a complex, perceptually and conceptually vast stimulus, one’s cognition struggles to accommodate the new information, but is sufficiently piqued in interest, curious and stimulated. It desperately strives to classify this and integrate with existing knowledge structures and schemas.  In short, a cognitive upgrade is needed.  And this challenge is exactly what brings the best out of the brain to do it’s work.  So consider the idea of an Awe Workout. This means small steps SYSTEMATICALLY towards crafting a more aspirational sensibility, to shake out of one’s own habitual thought patterns, and most importantly to shift from an assumption based viewpoint to a more all-encompassing and ‘growth mindset’.  One might take the initial step to a healthy fit lifestyle by doing 10 sit ups at the start of the day.  But equally, as a path towards a more flexible and stimulated , non-assumptive mindset, perhaps take a few moments first thing to contemplate an awe inspiring stimulus.  Cognitive sit-ups if you like.  So on rolling out of bed, view a piece of art, or go stand in a cathedral, view images of nature and ‘feel’ the immersion in that spectacle. Or better still get out there and take a new perspective, a momentary view from the periphery, reorienting oneself to the commonplace…

I am not done with Awe by a long shot and will return to this time and again.

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