The ideas expressed in this long post are somewhat complex; but they offer several new ideas that I think are worth understanding because of the insight they provide into a broad swath of human behavior, especially the politics of our personal and social relationships. The ideas first emerged in my mind decades ago, and then I sketched them in my book The Politics of Lust, and have developed them significantly since.
The next four paragraphs provide the gist of the argument.
Our brain has distinct cognitive systems to process the four main types of information that flows into it: 1) sensual, such as the scent of a rose; 2) emotional, such as the feeling of fear; 3) symbolic, such as reading these words; and 4) meta-cognitive, processing information about the other three systems, often called “mindfulness”. Several cognitive systems in one mind are like several people in a room: some form of politics will happen.
Just as egalitarian and dominator politics characterize social relations, they also appear in our cognitive world. If each of our information systems get roughly equal attention, and our consciousness moves easily between them, our cognitive politics are egalitarian. But if one system is the top dog and minimizes the attention the others get, dominator politics are occurring in our mind.
Why is this important? Because social and cognitive politics are reciprocally causal! If our personal and community relationships are egalitarian, our inner politics will likely be the same, because each breeds the other. Ditto with dominator politics, inside and out. If our family, religion and state practice dominator politics, the same will prevail inside our head. And vice versa.
Having introduced the main points, I will now flesh them out.
The cognitive modes Our thinking mind is our symbol-processor. It perceives the world through the symbols it invents, such as words, and numbers. Such symbols are critical for communication which in turn facilitates complex human interaction and the development of culture. An interesting feature of thought is that its symbols stand between the mind and the world. Thinking does not provide direct experience of the things the symbols represent, but only symbols themselves. Our sensual and emotional systems, in contrast, provide that direct experience of the real world.
Thinking is sometimes rational and evidenced-based; the development of science and technology is a product of such rational thinking. But perhaps more often, our symbol processor is fanciful and nonsensical, often corrupted by innate and learned biases and other impulses. Humans are prone to magical thinking. Our sensual mind processes non-symbolic information such as the taste of chocolate, the sound of music, the feel of a lover’s touch. Our senses give us the most immediate and direct access to the world, both outside our skin and inside.
Emotional cognition detects and arouses emotional energy in our bodies. It was designed by evolution to be impulsive and fast. It operates, for example, when we are startled by a sudden loud noise and involuntarily shudder, or look into our baby’s eyes and swoon with love, or when we see our father flush with rage and we experience fear, or see our mother laugh with abandon and we too start to chuckle.
Each of these three cognitive systems is interconnected. What we sense and feel affects how we think, which affects what we sense and feel. Often these cognitive processes operate in the background of our awareness, as when we drive a car without noticing all the sensual, emotional and symbolic information running through our mind.
Our uniquely human fourth cognitive system, our mindful awareness, can perceive the operation of the other systems, a form of meta-cognition. When it shines its light on any one of the other systems, that addition of consciousness increases the cognitive power of that system. For example, while cleaning up in the kitchen I can distractedly sniff the steam of my coffee and get the gist of its aroma; but if I stop the clean-up and deliberately focus my attention on that aroma, I am able to discern an array of subtle scents, the ones coffee roasters know well. Such experts literally “stop and small the coffee” all the time, and their sensual processor gets highly refined, compared to the meager talents of my nose.
Awareness of cognition So awareness increases the power of the cognitive system it gives attention to. And the greater that power, the more likely that system will come into awareness. If my nose is highly sensitive, it is more likely to deliver a constant stream of scents to my awareness than if my olfactory system is dull. The more scents I consciously receive, the more that cognitive system develops, which delivers more scents …. which is a mutually reinforcing feedback loop. Ultimately that process can allow one of our cognitive systems to dominate our consciousness.
What pushes a cognitive system into our awareness? There are two forces. The first is personal choice. We can deliberately focus our attention on sensual, emotional or symbolic information. For example, the coffee roaster decides to make a career focusing on sensual information.
The second force is even more powerful: the information environment. The outside world is rich in information and we cannot help but engage with it. Sometimes our info field is heavily dominated by one type of info, and sometimes is more balanced. For example, the university lecture hall is dominant in symbolic information, while a daycare nursery is dominant in both sensual and emotional information. The more our world is symbol-dominant, the more likely our symbol processor will dominate. Ditto if our habitat is dominated by sensual or emotional information.
Our evolutionary environment had a very specific type of information mix. Our ancestors received relatively equal doses of sensual, emotional and symbolic information. For example, living outside 24/7 they received an intense stream of sensual information, in the form of constantly changing temperatures, scents, light, wind, foods, and ecosystems. Contrast that with the bland indoor environment where most of us spend the vast amount of our time today. If you have visited the wilderness, you will notice how much more sensually rich it is than any modern home.
The primal info field The nomads were also constantly stimulated emotionally, thanks mostly but not exclusively to the intense sociality of their lifestyle. Imagine spending the bulk of your day in the company of the same 20-40 folks, for years. One anthropologist described African nomad culture as much like a never-ending encounter group. In comparison, our modern emotional lives are much flatter.
Our ancestors had to think too, such as how to best conduct a hunt, or ford a river, or manage conflict between group members. But their exposure to symbols was radically less than ours. The main symbol they had to process was the spoken word. Writing was invented by farmers and townspeople, not nomads. But like any human, they often had to think about the many issues, big and small, that every person needs to ponder to make it through the day.
Because the nomad info field was so balanced it would have produced a rough equality in the power of the cognitive systems of our ancestors. Importantly: such equality was also a survival essential. Out on the primal plains, to have one system dominate was dangerous. Nomads had to constantly shift between them.
For example, when foraging for food they had to be tuned-in to sensual information, and not zoned-out in thought, for that lack of attention to the present moment could distract them from a dangerous snake on the trail, or the scent of a thirst-slaking water hole, or the footsteps of a stalking predator. But sensual cognition could not dominate either, because in camp they had to switch on their emotional smarts to successfully cooperate with the others upon whom everyone’s survival depended. And in camp they would have been exposed to words – keeping their symbol processor busy.
Primal cognitive equality So survival on the primal plains required a high degree of cognitive equality. Nomads had to shift constantly between different cognitive modes and not stay stuck in one. People who liked to be cognitively flexible would be more successful reproducers than cognitive autocrats who wanted one system to dominate. In time emotional evolution would ensure that the genes of everyone would acquire the survival-enhancing preference for cognitive equality.
We got those genes. So by nature we do not like any type of cognitive dominance.
Buddha was the first to discover that fact. About 2500 years ago he and other sages in India began perhaps the first systematic inquiry into the human mind, practicing meditative techniques to develop their meta-cognition. That enabled them to make two important discoveries, which modern meditators also observe: 1) their minds were dominated by thought, a condition they named papanca 2) they enjoyed an emotional lift when they overcame such dominance during mediation; quieting the thinking mind could lead to bliss.
Though Buddha lived long ago, civilization had already existed for several thousand years, and he lived in a world of cities, kings, soldiers, holy men, books, the wheel and extensive trade. As I am about to show, civilization radically changed the nomadic info environment, which brought thought-dominance. Buddha, of course, had no knowledge of evolution, or even the fact that for vast millennia humans lived as hunter gatherers in Africa, before spreading out all over the world. So he naturally assumed that thought-dominance was the natural order of existence. Nor did he realize why overcoming thought-dominance would feel good. He had no idea our genes evolved to prefer cognitive equality.
Thought dominance and civilization The shift from cognitive equality to cognitive autocracy occurred because the slow march of civilization gradually increased the volume of symbols in the civilized info environment and decreased the amount of sensual and symbolic input. The information inputs of those who grow crops and walk streets is radically different than those of people who live in the wilderness. The former are exposed to a host of symbols that foragers never had to process.
Like numbers. When your wellbeing depends on the quantity of a harvest, counting becomes very important. Further, because farming gave rise to trade, where surpluses were exchanged for goods and services, numbers were an essential tool for the new life. In contrast, nomads needed no numeric system, at least beyond the number three — the highest number most nomads could count to. Civilization also brought a plethora of other symbols, such as writing, which allowed towns folk to keep records, which enabled social complexity like debts and finance, tolls and taxes, laws, and money.
The social inequality that civilization brought also increased the prevalence of symbols. Any hierarchy requires that the different ranks of each level be visible. So kings wear a crown, the rich rare gems, the generals stripes on their shoulders, and the priests colorful robes. The underclasses make do with rags. The social inequality of civilization brought a vast range of status symbols. More and more such representations of rank would come to mediate social relations.
As the volume of symbols increased, sensual and emotional information declined. Civilized folks no longer wandered far and wide as did their nomadic ancestors. They stayed put in farms and towns, and lost exposure to the wide variety of sensual stimuli that the nomadic lifestyle brings. Similarly, their emotional lives narrowed. For example, where women are inferior, as have been for the vast extent of civilization, they cannot express their desires to be strong and independent. They must repress those natural urges. Men have to repress another part of themselves: their need for nurturance and love. They need to be tough guys. As society becomes more and more complex, roles become more precise and emotional repression more profound, especially for those at the top of the hierarchy. In contrast, in the ancestral egalitarian world, roles were minimal. People did not have to restrain their emotional expression to fit their role.
The upshot: civilization, and especially its hierarchic structure, brought the dominance of symbolic cognition. Thoughts came to dominate our consciousness rather than our senses and emotions. Where the fiercely egalitarian cultures created cognitive equality, dominator cultures brought thought-dominance, a condition that Buddha was one of the first to discover.
Parallel political structure internally and socially Note the parallel political structure in both the primal and political worlds. Within each setting, social and cognitive politics are the same type. Is this an accident? No. As I’ve just shown, dominator social politics or egalitarian social politics produce the equivalent inner cognitive politics in the people in those environments.
And the reverse is also true: the politics of our cognition influences our social politics. To explore that idea, let’s look at how thought-dominance breeds dominator culture.
The first step is to get a sense of how thought-dominance feels. At one level it is the experience of symbols flowing through the mind. If you have never meditated, you might not recognize that subtle sense. It feels very different than sniffing coffee or being frightened.
But thought-dominance elicits not just the sense of thinking, but also habitual thinking, and that has an additional experiential feel. Like any habit, resisting persistent symbol-processing is uncomfortable because it requires extra energy than just surrendering to the dominant info flow. So to shift to other cognitive modes is subtly distressing. If that stress is experienced over an over when sensual or emotional cognition arises, that can condition a fear of such states. They become perceived as dangerous.
Another process reinforces that negativity, our identity. Our sense of self is largely forged by the prevalence of specific experiences. So the more you play music or caretake children or fly airplanes, the more you are likely to feel such experiences not merely as activities but as parts of “me”. Similarly, if thinking dominates your cognitive experience rather than sensing or emoting, you are likely to identify with the former experience. Moving into other cognitive processes will feel like a loss of self, generating the discomfort a macho man might feel if dressed in women’s clothes.
So because of habit and identity, not only does thinking feel best and part of “me”, but so does the dominance of that cognition over the others. It feels right that one part of me is the top dog that keeps the lower impulses at bay. The upshot is that thought-dominance creates a dominator system within the self. The cognitive modes are unequal and that top-down structure feels completely normal and natural.
But unfortunately, it contradicts our innate preferences. As I’ve argued above, it violates the cognitive equality that we evolved to like. Our nature is to enjoy cognitive flexibility, moving easily between cognitive modes. Buddha and modern meditators understand that. Thought-dominance causes cognitive rigidity and that creates stress.
That discomfort is reinforced by the stress of repressing emotional and sensual impulses. We are emotional and sensual beings and thought-dominance is constantly threatened by those aspects of our nature. The struggle to keep the thinking mind on top is anxiety-provoking. So you can’t be very happy when thought is perpetually dominant. As Buddhists know.
Thought dominance breeds social inequality So how does the inner autocracy breed support for systems of social domination? To me it makes sense that if one of my cognitive systems habitually dominates, and if I identify with that domination and regard others parts of me as low and dangerous, that such a dominator system would be the template that I would use to determine how people get along with each other. I would look for the top dogs and bottom dogs, and that top-down structure would feel natural and proper to me. So kings, popes, generals, and lords – anyone strong and powerful – would naturally get my support.
And the existence of the low and dangerous parts of my self, suggest that such bottom dogs must also exist in society, such as anyone who is week and vulnerable, like the poor, the enslaved, the conquered or outcasts of any type. Just as I favor strongmen, I would favor people and ideologies that stigmatize social groups and I would regard such people as dangerous and inferior.
The need for underdogs is also fostered by another feature of thought-dominance. The anxiety and unhappiness it creates seeks release. Psychologists have long recognized that negative feelings can be discharged by attacking others. For example, the overworked unhappy husband comes home and is nasty to his wife and kids. Similarly cultures of unhappy thought dominators get relief from their inner turmoil by scapegoating others, often including violence.
But that very lust to stigmatize helps create more anxiety. For the inequality it creates destroys social cohesion and trust. If you constantly perceive people in your community as dangerous and illegitimate, you won’t feel safe. Which breeds more of the need to discharge that negativity by stigmatizing and attacking other groups. A toxic loop. In a culture of equals, in contrast, trust not fear is the social emotion. Trust generates more connection which we evolved to love. People who feel good don’t need outcasts.
In sum: thought-dominance breeds the need for social inequality.
Cognitive and social politics are recprocally causal Recall from above, that such inequality breeds thought-dominance. Now we learn that the causal force goes in the other direction too. Of course that has to be the case. Every stable social system must have the same political structure in the mind and in society. Systems crumble when the two diverge.
The same homologous politics are evident in nomadic cultures. Their cognitive and social structure is egalitarian. Because no cognitive system dominates, nomads will identify with cognitive flexibility, the constant change from one mode to the other as circumstances allow. And that is exactly the model of their political system. There is no strongman. Leaders take charge only in the domain of their special skills, and surrender control when circumstances require other talents. Similarly, nomads have no underclass, now group of stigmatized outcasts living in their midst, Autocracy is contrary to the nomad identity and hence to them seems illegitimate, contrary to the natural order of equality. Their cognitive democracy supports social democracy. And vice versa.
The concept of cognitive politics casts light on other subjects that I will discuss in upcoming posts, such as: why our attitudes to sex reveal our deepest political orientation; and: why autocracy is sweeping the planet today.