Global Change Seminar
"It's Your Move!"

Segment #3:  Consciousness

Part II: The Psychology of Consciousness

          Until very recently, individuals had virtually no experience of societies and cultures beyond their own. Now, however, we have access to the cultures, languages, and stories of most living as well as many long-gone societies. As our exposure has grown to the many different ways there are of being human, so our experience of what it is to be human has widened. Information is now available at the click of a mouse to show the curious how cells work at the most intricate level, what life is like for a child in an Indian village, or how stars form in an outer galaxy. The field of evolutionary psychology attempts to explain the growth and development of consciousness, of the mind and brain, as human understanding of the grand scheme of things - and humanity's place in it - has exploded in ways that can sometime seem beyond our ability to grasp.

          In this article we give an overview of how some leading thinkers from the field of psychology, studying initially how human infants grow into adults, have produced insights into how consciousness has and is evolving, not only in our species, but on a micro level in each one of us individually through a series of unfolding phases. These ideas were developed after much research, study, accumulation of supporting evidence, and they build on and enhance each other.


          I:   In the 1950's psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the idea of a Hierarchy of Needs. He posited that humans have a hierarchy of needs which must be met in order for an individual to self actualize. Each need precedes and, once satisfied, is the foundation for the next higher level need. The hierarchy is as follows:

  1. Physiological - hunger, thirst, bodily comfort.
  2. Psychological - safety, security, be out of danger.
  3. Belonging - love, affiliation with others.
  4. Self esteem - competence to achieve and gain approval.
  5. Self actualization - self mastery, wisdom, inner peace.

          In Maslow's theory, each need must be fulfilled before the next level need can be addressed and met. When all needs up the hierarchy are adequately met people naturally blossom and are able to fulfill their individual potential.


         II:   Anthropologist Ernest Becker died in 1974 after winning the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Denial of Death, his most noted publication, but before finishing his seminalwork on the consequences of human awareness of mortality. Much of his work was initially misunderstood as being overly pessimistic, but is more recently gaining recognition through the activities of the Ernest Becker Foundation, whose goal (like Becker's) is to reduce human violence through the rational modification of culture.   In Becker's view (differing from Freud) the underlying drive towards violence is acquired in the process of socialization and is not a biological given. Becker's context was that man, as an animal, shares in the evoluntionary history of all species but has developed a distinct psychology rooted in the unique awareness of death.

          As sumarized by philosopher Sam Keen, Becker's theory has four main strands:

  1. The world is a terrifying place. We know that we are inextricably bound up in the systemic food chain through which all living organizms sustain themselves.
  2. The basic motivation for human behavior is the need to control our basic anxiety which stems from the knowledge that we are going to die.
  3. Since the terror of death is so overwhelming, we conspire to keep it submerged in our unconscious. We live each day as if we were immortal through cultural heroics wherein each individual tries to prove their own worth, and thus acquire self-esteem and symbolic immortality.
  4. Our heroic projects are generated by fighting and destroying what is seen as evil -- with the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world.

          In Becker's theory we are, as individuals, mortal and weak animals. But, given the choice between accepting this reality or internalizing an illusion of greatness or importance, most people choose illusion over reality, lies over truth, fiction over fact. In general, people draw into their culture for a personal sense of worth in order to allay the anxious, gnawing, unconscious suspicion that individual life is but fleeting, perishable, transient, insignificant, and meaningless.


          III:   Psychologist Clare Graves spent his life trying to unravel the conundrum of human behavior, and finally concluded that a new theory was needed. In the mid '70s he summarized his discoveries by saying:

"Briefly, what I am proposing is that the psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating spiraling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as an individual's existential problems change. Each successive stage, wave, or level of existence is a state through which people pass on their way to other states of being. When the human is centralized in one state of existence, he or she has a psychology which is particular to that state. His or her feelings, motivations, ethics and values, biochemistry, degree of neurological activation, learning system, belief systems, conception of mental health, ideas as to what mental illness is and how it should be treated, conceptions of and preferences for management, education, economics, and political theory and practice are all appropriate to that state."

          Building on the work of Clare Graves, two of his students (Don Beck and Chris Cowan) created an approach they named Spiral Dynamics which The Spiral Dynamics Model of Human Developmenthas since been applied to resolve tensions in a number of situations. The insights from Spiral Dynamics about human and cultural growth and development are helpful in explaining why there is so much conflict in the world--a necessary first step for finding ways to get beyond it. While the theory is still in its infancy and provokes many unanswered questions, it is a groundbreaking idea.

          As explained in the Spiral Dynamics website, the model meshes the new science of memetics with Gravesian value systems to form “value memes” or ”vMemes” and crafts a theory of transformational change. By exploring and describing the core intelligences and deep values that flow beneath what we believe and do, the model offers a profoundly incisive, dynamic perspective on complex matters such as:

       o       HOW people think about things (as opposed to “what” they think);
       o       WHY people make decisions in different ways;
       o       WHY people respond to different motivators;
       o       WHY and HOW values arise and spread; and
       o       the nature of CHANGE.

          This powerful conceptual system has been field-tested in some of the most complex environments on the planet, from inner-city Chicago to racially plagued South Africa. Since the focus is on the deeper vMemetic foundations, Spiral Dynamics suggests ways to move more quickly in the direction of deep dialogue and arrive at comprehensive, integrated solutions for situations of conflict.

          In Spiral Dynamics, individual and collective human development is seen as a process of changing world view, of changing value systems. Each person (or culture) see the world through a window/filter that matches its stage of development. For most of their development, a person believes that is the way the world is, and people who're looking through a different window are uninformed, just plain wrong, stupid, or even evil. Even though one may think s/he is open-minded, until one reaches the second tier of the spiral one habitually disregards or discounts information that is out-of-step with one's current mind set. To quote Don Beck: "Keep your hands on your knees. Notice when they jerk!"

          As people grow and develop there is a decline in their egocentrism. They move from egocentric to ethnocentric to world centric. The stages described by Spiral Dynamics are listed below. Note that it's not until one reaches the second-tier of thinking, the world centric level, that one can see the whole spiral of conscious awareness- with the other stages looking in through their various windows. At that second tier, a person no longer sees other world views as wrong or evil just by virtue of their being different. S/he can finally see a more whole picture.

          Spiral Dynamics labels the stages with a color, to get away from better/worse and higher/lower value judgments and to underscore the rainbow-like beauty of human development. In this model, no stage is more valuable than any other - all are essential and need to be valued. And, at each level healthy and unhealthy behaviors can be exhibited. Thus it is the health of the whole spiral that is important. In this model of psychological development, the job of those who have developed further along the spiral is to nourish the healthy development of those at an earlier point, and to lovingly and compassionately aid them in their growth along the spiral.

          The initial tier of "Subsistence Levels" of development in Spiral Dynamics is summarized below, with the "value memes or vMemes" given a color for ease of reference:

          At some point individuals and cultures can grow into a second tier of psychological development, with a conscious awareness of the prior stages which are recognized, understood, and accepted for what they are. The difficulty is that only second tier consciousness sees the preceding stages as good and necessary, and most of humanity is somewhere in the first tier, ravaging the earth, competing and fighting with each other over differences in points of view. At second tier thinking a quantum leap has been made, and a huge chasm in depth of understanding crossed. Thinking becomes vertical as well as horizontal. One can, for the first time, vividly grasp the entire spectrum of interior development and thus see that each level is crucially important for the health of the overall spiral. At the second tier the first tier world views are fully appreciated and their existence is evident and accepted. 1% of the population but growing, 5% of the power.  

          It is the meeting of needs (as in Maslow's hierarchy) which provides individuals with the necessary foundation or grounding to move along the spiral into second tier thinking where consideration for others at all levels becomes an integral part of behavior and decision making.

          The second tier "Levels of Being" are described by Spiral Dynamics as:

          A key concept in Spiral Dynamics is that someone at one stage sees things very differently and has a different value system from someone at another stage. We flow through the stages as we grow, contemplate, and learn. And, our world view changes as we react to stress--we tend to move down the spiral when threatened, and up when freed. An essential point in the model is the clear recognition that the entire spectrum of interior development is crucially important for the health of the overall spiral. All levels must be fully appreciated and the need for their existence fully accepted. So the answer is not to attack the ‘lower’ levels, but to respect and support their needs at their present level in a positive way, thereby eliminating the need for people to defend themselves and their world view. This approach encourages their development in a healthy way at their own pace.

          A note of caution: There is great danger in trying to pigeonhole people in a color. No-one "lives" every day at a particular level--we move back and forth according to circumstances. A person is never entirely in one stage, and cannot and should not be labeled as such. It is much more useful to recognize behaviors with a color. If one finds oneself labeling individuals with a color, the chances are one is discounting them.

          Our conscious awareness allows us to construct a persona and personality that we wear as a coat. Unfortunately, sometimes we can't it take off later even if it no longer really represents who we are.


          IV:   Current-day philosopher Ken Wilber has spent a lifetime thinking about life's questions and has produced a useful 4-quadrant way of explaining how humans look at the world. Wilber’s Four Quadrant model addresses the individual and collective aspects of humanity as follows.

          The right quadrants contain what is scientifically accurate or true, and the left quadrants contain what is beautiful and what is good. The right quadrants are addressed by scientific reductionism and the left quadrants are addressed by aesthetics, values and spirituality.

          One essential point of Wilber’s model is that all four quadrants must be acknowledged and dealt with in order to facilitate healthy human development. The absence of attention to any quadrant will invariably lead to some kind of pathological behavior in the individual or the community or the nation at large. (Witness such institutions as slavery or apartheid as examples of that.)  A second essential point in Wilber’s model is that there are natural hierarchies in the world which must be acknowledged. For example atoms exist, molecules are greater than and contain atoms, cells are greater than and contain molecules, organs are greater than and contain cells, individuals are greater than and contain organs, and communities are greater than and contain individuals. Each succeeding level does not replace the previous level, rather it integrates it as a fundamental part of itself without which it could not exist. And likewise, without the whole the part would have no purpose.

Think About

    1. What strikes you most about what you just read?
    2. In what way might these models be helpful in understanding how and why conflicts arise?
    3. Can you think of some current global problems on which these models could shed some light?


Next: Science and Religion


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