We’re joined again by Harvard trained social scientist Dr. Jeffery Martin. As a conclusion to our discussion on the initial findings on his research into “non-symbolic consciousness” Jeffery goes into the further reaches of his research participants. He speaks about the tendency for people on the higher range of his model to have a diminished sense of self-referential thoughts, emotions, and will, even to the point of being completely gone. Jeffery also covers some of the biases in his research pool, as well as the way that traditions might serve to both support and then also hinder people’s movement into non-symbolic consciousness.
This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, The Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness.
Vincent: Almost every Buddhist tradition has different maps of their own to kind of describe a process that one might go through as they’re waking up, or as they’re moving towards what you’re calling non-symbolic consciousness. Could you say from this more universal model that’s based on cognitive psychology and based on longitudinal research what are some of the core features of that process that you’ve started to see being revealed in the data?
Jeffery: Right. That’s the key question. That’s just a fantastic question. It’s been I would say really mind blowing to watch that data be collected and unfold and see just how much it really does change.
So you’re so right about maps. Our experience has been that even within narrow subsets of tradition, the experts in those narrow subsets of a tradition don’t agree on their own maps. And so you’ve got all of these maps and you’ve got all of these different ideas out there involving this stuff, and our process really side-stepped all of that.
So for instance when we sit down with someone for interview, usually we begin by asking them to just sort of give a little bit of their history and tell us what brought us up to this moment where we’re sitting down and talking. And we used that for a couple of things. We use it to synchronize language because everybody has different language associated with this. So we used the term non-symbolic consciousness not necessarily because it’s the best description of this, but because it’s the description that we found early on in the process that was not turning off potential research participants. At the very earliest part of this process, we would use the word like experience and it would turn out that the person that we are talking to just did not like the word experience. And so they would refuse to participate in our research because they just said “You guys don’t understand us. I’m not going to waste my time with you.” Or we would use consciousness and the person didn’t like consciousness. And we’re really struggling in those early days to try to figure out how to communicate.
And so one day in a paper from a lady named Susanne Cook-Greuter, I just sort of stumble across this word, it was non-symbolic consciousness. And I thought I’m going to try that. The minute we started using that word, people started coming in and participating in our research. It just didn’t turn anybody off. Everybody sort of thought about it for a minute, it sort of fit enough that it didn’t trigger anything for them and they were willing to participate. I say that just to sort of bring out the fact that these are very touchy things, these maps and these definitions and these terms.
Jeffery: And really no two people I found really agree with them if you really, really try to get them to sit down, even sort of within the same tradition and get really, really nitty-gritty with it. It’s very very interesting. So we actually wound up sidestepping that. We do listen to all of those types of terms and we do synchronize with those types of terms for communication purposes and what not. But really we asked about things like thinking and memory and what not. And what’s shaken out from that over the course of time is very huge differences between the beginning, what would we think of as sort of the beginning parts of the process or I would call it sort of the left side of the continuum and the more later stages.
I don’t think that we have any idea if we reached the latest stage type of people. Certainly it gets rarer. It gets a lot harder to find participants as you go from the left side of our model to the right side of our model. Just not a lot of people that seems to sort of make it to that right side. And on the extreme right side we got hints of a couple of stages that we just absolutely don’t have enough subjects to really accurately explore in any way. So we’ve got some people kind of in holding from a research perspective. So I can only really take it so far, but I can take it very far I think at this point.
So if you’re talking about the far left side of the model and I’m asking you about the nature of your thoughts and I’m asking you about the nature of your emotions, and I’m asking you about the nature of memory, and I’m asking you about the nature of perception. Memory is largely unchanged at that point. Thinking is significantly changed and you’ll often hear a certain subset of that population, it seems to be right around 70% of that population just immediately sort of come back with the idea that well you know thinking has stopped for me. But that’s almost never true for people who are on that side of the continuum. So when you really, really, really dig into it, you’d find out that it’s not so much that thinking has stopped for those people, but that the relevance of certain types of thoughts has diminished to the point where… right now I am sitting here and there’s all sort of stuff going on. I’m looking out at the window and there’s tree blowing but I’m really not thinking about the trees blowing. I’m thinking about this conversation and what I’m going to say next. The tree is still blowing over there. If I want to focus on the tree blowing over there I can. It’s sort of like that with this particular class of thoughts for these folks. So they’re still there. They can still be focused on if it’s desirable. There often are periods for them when their thoughts do sort of draw them in. They’re not completely immune to thoughts. But largely it’s like the tree that’s outside the window right now. I’m just not really, it’s there, it’s blowing around but I’m just not really paying attention to it. And that’s really how this sort of how this one type of their thoughts have become for them.
Now that turns out to be a major part of the thought structure. It’s the part of thoughts that deals with sort of self-referential thinking. So it’s the part of thought that deals with anything that has to do about thinking about yourself basically. It doesn’t impact your ability to schedule things. It doesn’t impact your ability to solve math problems. It doesn’t involve all those other types of thinking. But it turns out that those other types of thinking don’t occupy that much of our time. And what occupies a lot of our times are these other sort of referential type of thoughts. And so when they become irrelevant the mind seems a lot more quiet. But if you actually dig into it and you really ask the questions in certain ways that we’ve learned to ask them right now. It almost always draws out this very sort of different picture of it that now there’re thoughts.
And for the other 30% and these are sort of rough numbers but they’re pretty accurate number so far in our population. For the other 30%, their number of thoughts they would actually say has increased after their awakening experience or whatever you want to call it today. So their thoughts have really multiplied. But again it’s a situation where it’s like the tree blowing outside the window even thought there are more thoughts they’re still not really being affected by them. And lots of time people haven’t noticed that there’s more thoughts because there are senses that things have gotten a lot quieter.
Until we sort of ask questions in certain ways and get them to dig into their heads, we spend a lot of times in these interviews, 6-12 hours, it sounds like a lot of time in interview. But we spend a lot of time sitting quietly with people because we ask them these questions that they just never thought about before. And they actually have to sort of sit with them for a minute and then sort of figure out what the answer is for them and then come back with the answer for us. If you were to listen to our recordings to our interviews, there’s a lot of pauses after these questions while people dig in.
And so it’s very true for this thought type of questions as well, where people have to sort of sit there and say oh, my gosh. They’re often very surprised wow, there’s actually probably more thoughts of that nature now that I’m thinking about it. They also often don’t think about, you know, when they say thoughts went away they’re often also not differentiating the type of thinking, the type of thoughts that went away. That’s often also new for them. So that’s an example of thinking.
Now if we go all the way to the end of the scale, if we were to deal with research participants that seem to be, if this is some sort of progressive scale, if we were to go all the way to the other end of that. At that point really the thoughts are gone. I mean no matter how much you try to get people to look for them. They’re gone.
Now there’s some different ways how that shows up. For instance, those thoughts can return here and there. There are some people that they return for early in the morning just after waking for the first 15 minutes or 10 minutes or 5 minutes, whatever it is. There are some that returns for if they get very sort of hypoglycemic if they don’t eat, if they are sleep deprived, those thoughts can return. So there appears to be an inhibitory mechanism that we’re dealing with here. And by the time you reach the end of this, it’s pretty darn clamped down, unless the brain doesn’t have what it needs to sort of function normally or function optimally and then it’s almost like that inhibition can lift a little bit and some of the people that are in sort of the earlier parts of those later stages can have some self referential thoughts kind of bubbling back up.
So that’s an example of how things change. And as you might imagine, as you go across that continuum you see what you would sort of expect in terms of a progression from one of those extremes to the other one of those extremes. And we can talk about the same sort of changes. There’s changes that are very similar for emotion at the end of the spectrum. People basically represent that they do not experience emotion ever. Now that sounds like terrible like it would be some automaton type existence but in fact no one wants to go back. Whatever that’s like not to experience emotion, it’s better than what came before it. And lots of times there was a progression into it and what came before it was pretty darn amazing compared to what came before that. So whatever that is to not have emotion, to be on sort of the far end there, you still have a tremendous sense of well being. It’s just not an emotional sense of well being. So people don’t represent for instance having love. If you say do you have love. They’d say “no I don’t have any love.” And that’s true for even things like their kids. They don’t have fatherly or motherly love for their children even anymore. So those sorts of extreme forms of love that people maybe can’t imagine not being a part of their life literally there’s no experience of them.
Now when we measure their body, we do measure sort of the same type of physiological responses that you would measure in people that had emotion. So it’s interesting because there does appear to be sort of what you would think of measurable emotional response in the body but there’s no experience of it.
Vincent: From the subjective side.
Jeffery: From the subjective side.
Vincent: That’s really interesting. I was going to ask because this is such a fascinating way of talking about a progression, and of course looking for instance in some of the contemplative traditions that I’m familiar with. You have descriptions of things like this and then on the other hand almost all the contemplative traditions I’m aware of, they also talk a lot about things like ethics or morality or how to kind of be in the world in a way that’s of benefit to other people.
And so it’s interesting I think for a lot of people that might hear something like this that thinking for instance is going away or emotions are going away that in some ways I can imagine people going wait a second, that’s not good. How are they going to be able to function? You know or be able to contribute or why don’t they just sort of die at that point? Anyway, I just want to bring that up because I suspect that’s maybe a common response to that type of thing.
Jeffery: It is, absolutely. And it very much feels to people who are just dropped into it. As I said you don’t have to start at point A and go to point Z, right. So you can start at point X for instance. You can start at one of those no thought or no emotion, something else that goes along with it as there’s no sense of agency. There’s no sense that you can do anything in the world. The world is just unfolding. There’s no sense that you can make a decision.
There’s not only not a sense that you’re not making a decision, which can happen at other places in this developmental progression, but there’s literally just a palpable sense that it’s just completely impossible to make a decision, completely impossible to take any action. And so there’s just sort of a set of things that’s sort of snap into place. And it does sound like that from the outside.
One of the things that’s interesting to me about this is that when I’m sitting across the table from these individuals… As you might expect if you’re spending hours or time with someone, lots of times you develop bonds with some of them. You become friends over time. And they are in every sense of the word normal. I mean they seem completely normal. They laugh. They seemed to have an emotional life. It’s very difficult to tell from the outside. In fact, you couldn’t tell from the outside. I often say that I were to put 12 of these people in the room with 12 people I randomly picked off the street and were just to take the average person into that room and leave them in there for a few hours and pull them out after a few hours and say hey did anybody seemed different. They probably wouldn’t say that anybody seemed different to them.
And that’s really a fascinating aspect of this research is to try to figure out what’s going on with the sense inside that you’re completely gone. That any sense of individualized sense of self is just gone. And yet from the outside you go to work the next day after that happens to you and your co-workers don’t notice a thing. And they’re astonished. Most people are astonished by that. They think to themselves how am I going to work tomorrow?
Our population is very very broad. It runs from and we have some parameters on age. So it runs from 18 years old up into the late 90s at this point. And it runs across all educational levels. There are some ethnic skews. They’re primarily white. There’s a bias towards man over woman. If you really dig into instead of looking at the range, if you really dig into the biases there’s also a bias towards education for whatever reason the people that we find they’re usually have a college degree. Lots of times they have a graduate school degree.
In fact, there was one trip that I took across the United… I’m constantly interviewing people. I don’t do that so much now. We just sort of concluded that part of the project. We’re now onto the neuro-imaging part of the project. But there was a point where I drove across the United States seeing people every few hours per interviews. And on that entire trip, I didn’t stop and see one person that didn’t have a PhD, which is incredible when you think about. I didn’t find them because they were in the university system. I didn’t know that they have PhD until I sat down with them and was doing sort of background information on their education and stuff. So it does tend to be a more educated sample. Our sample is almost entirely white really. That’s one of the reason I’m going to Asia. We’re about to sort of expand this to Asia to see if the data holds up in Asian’s populations as well.
So when you think about it, you also think about socio-economically and they really cut across very broadly the socio-economic spectrum. So there are people with no thought, with no emotion, reporting no sense of agency that are extraordinarily high functioning in society. That are running sizable organizations, that are in very senior leadership positions within governments. That are really people who are functioning at the level of the world that is difficult to function at in the first place. And when you asked them, “when this transition occurred to you, did it make you more effective, less effective, what did you notice as a result of this?” And I haven’t had one person yet that hasn’t said oh it made me far more effective than I was before. These were already people who were major CEO or major person in government or even a major sort of nonprofit type person.
So these were people who are really sort of at the top of the world from a socio-economic insider, power broker, sort of thing. And so the world I think would have looked at them and said, “this is an extremely productive individual.” And yet they really related their productivity before and after this even in almost a night and day sort of way universally. There isn’t one of them that says this any differently, that sort of this type of high functioning person. Now they were a type A person before it happened to them and they are no longer a type A person. That’s for sure. So it does sort of fundamentally change sort of that type of thing.
But when I say so what is it that’s actually different? What is it that you find helpful about this that you didn’t have going for you before. The one thing that everyone mentioned, they often feels like they’re the only person who’s actually in the room that’s paying attention to what’s going on. And that you know everybody else is 30% there or 60% there or 10% there or 2% there. But that they are just a 100% in that room.
And they’ll talk about the fact that even people who have known them for years and have watched them in these environments just building out major organizations or whatever, and are used to them being brilliant, high achieving people will say, “Jeez in recent years I have to say the stuff that comes out of your mouth is unpredictable but it’s even more brilliant than it was before.” And that’s often the way they represent it feeling from the inside, again because they don’t feel like they have the ability to take any action. Often times they’re sort of watching what’s coming out of their mouth just like everybody else in the room is watching what’s coming out of their mouth. And so they’re lots of time as surprised by sort of the insights that they’re offering to the board meeting or whatever it is that they’re at as everybody else is. It gives them almost this witness position to watch this whole other level of sort of brilliant comment and observation coming out of their mouth.
And they think about why is that happening and they come up with the answer that there’s just something about the nature of what’s changing them in terms of their ability to just be completely there and to really be paying attention to nuances that they missed prior to that in their lives, simply because they weren’t so incredibly present.
Yeah, you would think to yourself why go on living if you don’t have thoughts, if you don’t feel like you can take action. But their well being is extraordinary and there’s absolutely no evidence that these people aren’t able to continue on in very high functioning roles. In fact, often times, they’ll change roles and try to challenge themselves more and in different ways. You know basically try to test these new capabilities. It’s really kind of interesting.
Vincent: Interesting. I’m wondering too about this phase of your research, the phase where you’re going around and interviewing people in depth. Where there things as you started looking at the data, was there one thing or maybe two things in particular that surprised you?
Jeffery: Sure. I think it surprised me that people had no sense of agency or emotion and things like that. Those were big surprises. But I think the largest surprise for me was how inconsistent it was across the population.
It’s kind of one of those things where you started off with sort of like a giant list of stuff. Like I said earlier you just kind of cross them off one thing at a time. But I think in the back of your own mind after you talked to 10 people or 20 people or 30 people or 40 people you kind of start to think yourself okay after the first 5 or 10 you kind of have a list narrowed down. You think “okay well maybe this will be the list.” Then you talked to another 10 and a whole bunch of more stuff gets scratched off and you think okay well maybe this will be the list. Then you talked to another 10 and a whole bunch, by the time you’re on your 50th or 60th or 70th person what winds up happening is that your list is like three items long. And you start thinking about all of the stuff that you left on the cutting room floor back there. One thing that’s common across all of this individuals, and they may only be one thing that’s common across all these individuals and that is that they all represent some sort of fundamental shift in their sense of self.
And I guess I thought going in, especially as the initial interviews progress and people seemed to talk about it in sort of similar ways, and before we really got to teasing stuff out and using experiments to knock things out that people thought were true and maybe weren’t necessarily true about their experience and things like that. I guess you know I really felt like there is going to be sort of this big generic list of what it was like to be one of these people. And at the end of that process I was really just left with only being able to say “well it’s basically, it seems to be a shift of identify and it seems to be a shift of identify away from sort of a localizable sense of identify or self to something else.” And that something else really depends completely upon where someone is at on that continuum and it depends completely on what their ideology was coming into that continuum.
If they’re on the early stages of the continuum, they’re still generally very affected by their religious ideology or their spiritual ideology whatever it was. If they’re at the end of that, they’re not talking about it at all. And if fact there seems to be a point where you go through a transition where especially if you’ve been in a spiritual tradition for a long time or religious tradition for a long time. And a lot of these traditions don’t have this built in to get past. So not a lot of people get passed it of what sort of seem to be the later stages to me, especially Christianity, right? So if you’re a Christian, let’s say if you’re Carmelite nun or if you’re whatever. If you’re into contemplative prayer or some kind or something and you have sort of this long tradition, well you know if you think about the literature in those areas, you have St. John of the Cross and stuff like that. That literally only goes so far if you hold it up to other tradition involving a transition involving a sense of selfhood. There’s almost nothing that goes beyond that. I mean unless you find maybe Bernadette Roberts’ books or something like that. If you’re in that tradition, you don’t really have something that carries you beyond a certain point. So usually you don’t go beyond a certain point. And that’s what it is to you.
You think you’re at the end because you’re at the end of your literature and that happens to just about everybody in these various spiritual traditions. There’s a fantastic interview that I did, a very late stage person a few months ago. And he used a phrase that I thought really resonated well with me on this. His phrase was, “you get what you optimize for.” I think that’s really really true across all of these different subjects. If they’re coming in from a certain Buddhist perspective, they get what they optimized for in that tradition. If they’re coming in from a Christian perspective, they get what they optimized for in that tradition. They go as far as that tradition knows to get them. They usually don’t get beyond that tradition. If they do get beyond that tradition, they often are going through sort of a major crisis point because they’ve built up so much. They don’t realize it, it seems. They may feel completely like their sense of self is gone.
They may really feel like they made that transition away from having any sense of an individualized self but then they’re in for this very sense of this rude awakening that occurs if they try to go beyond the sort of the end point of their tradition. And when that falls away, when those construct fall away it’s a whole other invisible piece of the self that seems to fall away with it.
I think really the only way to describe it is it’s traumatic for people, especially if you’re coming from like a Christian tradition where you’ve got Christ and love and whatever else depending on your Christian tradition, just to pick one. If you got sort of like the Christ indwelling in you and this love and this whatever else and this God that’s so incredibly real to you. And this union is so incredibly real to you. And imagine what happens when that stops. Imagine what happens when that falls away. And there’s nothing in your experience, there’s nothing in your support system, there is nothing in the world around you that has any way to inform that. Iat’s very difficult. It’s extremely traumatic for people to hit. And then they go through a period of adjustments and their well being is off the chart as compared to what it was before like I said. So there’s sort of surprising things like this I think that I found.