Waking up an ancient god of the mind
New science points us back to old ways of thinking about consciousness.
Back in the 60s, we thought we would have fully-functional robots walking around and doing our dishes.
But, obviously, that didn’t happen.
At the time, we had no idea what role attention (consciousness?) plays in seeing the world. We figured the world of stuff was just “out there,” and you interacted with it. Easy! Right?
As more and more decades slipped by with no fully autonomous robots, scientists started coming to strange conclusions.
What’s worth paying attention to
Over the last couple of decades, roboticists and cognitive scientists — unlikely bedfellows — began to come to similar conclusions: you don’t “see” an objective world out there. You see tools and obstacles. Those are directly related to your goals. Your overall story.
It’s hard to overstate how literally true it is that the world is a story.
To philosophers, this is called relevance realization.
But in much simpler terms, the lyrics to “The Circle of Life” capture the problem perfectly:
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
'Til we find our place
On the path unwinding
The reason you don’t “see” the objective world is that there is an infinite number of details about it. “More to see than can ever be seen.”
You learn to ignore 99.99% of those details by finding your place on the path unwinding (it moves us all).
In other words, you can’t exist without a prefigured framework of things that are good (gets you closer to your goals) and things that are bad (keeps you from your goals).
Even stranger: you can’t see or act without an ethical (good or bad) framework. And it’s mostly subconscious. That’s why we struggle to make robots who can walk around and pet cats. We don’t know how to program an ethic. Yet.
To illustrate how deep this goes: You have to point your eyes somewhere to even see. How do you know where to look, given the infinite places you could look? For example, why are you looking at these words? Because you’ve decided that they fit into your framework of good and so you believe it’s worth your resources to gaze at the letters (thank you). If at any point I lose you, your eyes will literally lose the ability to focus. Or you’ll look somewhere else. You won’t even be able to help it.
And the kicker to all of this is — we’ve known this for thousands of years.
The messenger of the gods
In the minds of the Greeks, gods were like psychological forces.
We might say, “That mob is enraged,” but they would’ve said, “The spirit of Ares possesses those men.”
If you withhold judgment for a moment, that actually makes a lot of sense. The “spirit” of anger can possess you, a crowd, a dog, or ancient and modern people alike. It’s immortal. When anger takes over, you lose control. Why not think of that as a god?
On top of that, we learned in the beginning that the world is very deeply a story. Why not this story, then?
And, if we’re willing to think of anger as a god, what else would make more sense to us to see from this perspective?
How about the ability to pay attention? Which god helps us overcome what philosophers call “relevance realization?” Which god makes important things “shine” so you know how to find your path?
Hermes was the messenger of the gods. But, in modern terms, think of him as the god of attention. When something “shines forth” from the world and grabs your attention — that’s Hermes.
When you go to a bookstore and see a book that you want to read and have no idea why — that’s Hermes.
By learning to pay attention to him, we can learn to change how our world manifests.
What you paid attention to manifested your world
The woo-woo types always talk about how you “manifest” your world.
It’s true — but it’s not magic.
You know how when decide to buy a grey Lexus, suddenly you see a grey Lexus everywhere? That’s Hermes. That’s going on all the time about everything else, too. You just don’t notice.
Once your attention is focused on something (happiness, loneliness, or heartbreak), you tend to seek out more of that thing, consciously and unconsciously. Once you get more of that thing, you seek even more, and so on. A feedback loop.
So, you got your life by paying attention. Or by continuing to pay attention to what your parents taught you to pay attention to, etc.
And, as we learned in the beginning, there are infinite things you could pay attention to, but you can’t see any of those things because you’re “locked” in your frame.
There is a better life waiting for you — but invisible to you.
How do you get out? How do you change your life?
Pay attention to Hermes
Do an exercise with me.
While your reading these words, watched yourself read these words. Think about the information entering your brain. Then, think about how the words and information entering your brain feels. Notice the sensations. Notice the thoughts that bubble in your mind. Just notice.
If you like, close your eyes and notice the thoughts and sensations you have for about ten seconds. Starting now.
If you did that, thank you.
And, according to the ancient Greeks, you just visited with the spirit of Hermes.
By learning to have a relationship with the spirit of attention, we can learn to step out of frames (stories) when they are no longer serving us.
We can find a new path that sparkles in the darkness, leading us out of our old ways.
It’s not something you just start doing. It takes daily practice.
Of course, this is the whole idea of mindfulness and meditation. You likely already do this in some way. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel.
I’m just trying to give you a new lens through which to see the problem.
But by paying attention to the god of attention himself, we can teach ourselves to change the story of our life.
Thanks for following this path with me.
Here’s something to take with you: when something “shines forth,” make sure to follow it. Next time you get an intuition to call someone, buy a book, or take a walk – do it. That’s the spirit of Hermes.
Who knows where it might lead?
Thanks for reading,
What’s moving me:
This is a great piece! It makes me think of Kahneman’s theory of System 1 vs. System 2. We can’t afford to spend all our resources truly noticing everything. But we can dip into that mode in moments of mindfulness, and during “cognitive minefields.”
Also consciousness is sort of like a process of abstraction- obscuring the irrelevant details and retaining only the vital. Myths do the same thing. As do words/labels.