posttitle = What is collective consciousness and why does it matter? titleClass =title-long len =56

What is collective consciousness and why does it matter?

I scheduled this post to go live as a showtime, then realized I wasn’t sure if “consciousness” is the right way to even frame this, but I let it go live anyway. In some sense it could be called “sanity”, but that has its own challenging connotations. I use both terms sort of synonymously below; I might decide later that yet a third word is better. There’s also a lot more that I can—and will—say about this!

I figure collective consciousness can be summarized as the capacity for a group of people to:

  • see the world clearly together, integrating their individual perspectives into a larger whole
  • have a shared train of thought that finds and makes sense of what is relevant
  • make and enact decisions together in ways that adequately incorporate all information and careabouts that all members have

(Jordan Hall’s 3 facets of sovereignty: perception, sensemaking and agency.)

I like to say “Utopia is when everyone just does what they feel like doing, and the situation is such that that everyone doing what they feel like doing results in everyone’s needs getting met.” On a smaller group, a sane We is when everyone in the We does what they feel like in the context of the We, and they are sufficiently coherently attuned to each other and the whole such that each member’s needs/careabouts get met.

In some sense, obviously, if there existed an X such that if you supported the X it would cause everything you want to be achieved better than you could manage on your own, you’d want to support the X. Obviously, from the X’s perspective, it would want to support the individuals’ wants/needs/etc to get met so that they have more capacity to continue supporting it supporting them supporting it [ad infinitum]. This is the upward spiral, and it’s made out of attending to how to create win-wins on whatever scale.

There can’t, as far as I can tell, exist such an X that is fully outside the individual(s) it is supporting. In order for it to actually satisfy what you actually care about, consistently and ongoingly, it needs a direct feedback loop into what you care about, which may not be what you can specify in advance. The system gives you what you need/want, not what you think you need/want, in the same way that you do this for yourself when you’re on top of things. Like if you eat something and it doesn’t satisfy you, you get something else, because you can tell. (This is related to goodhart and to the AI alignment puzzle).

Fortunately, as far as I can tell, we can learn to form We systems that are capable of meeting this challenge. They are composed of ourselves as individuals, paying attention to ourselves, each other and the whole in particular ways. Such a We can exist in an ongoing long-term explicit committed way (eg a marriage) or one-off task-based unremarkable ad hoc way (eg a group gathers to get someone’s car unstuck, then disappears) or something in between (eg some people who meet out on deep playa at burning man and decide to be buddies for the rest of the day).

What does it feel like?

There is a feeling of surrendering to a larger We and doing what makes sense to that We, which involves a kind of trust. When this trust is naive or compartmentalized, the We is unstable and not all information is able to flow. This feeling of surrender is scary but also broadly feels good and exciting and people want to do it. It’s why we like falling in love, why we like playing team sports, and why working on a project together can be so satisfying.

Sports teams experience co-flow, but they’re largely not attending to the needs of their constituent individuals, they’re just coordinating towards some external goal whose progress all members can individually assess. There’s a need to attend to what the other team members are doing, what they’re capable of, etc, and even some perspective-taking in terms of knowing what the game is like (in general or in this moment) from another’s role, but there isn’t the same need for deep listening and finding win-wins.

In most partner-dance, there are leader and follower roles, and the follower surrenders to the leader’s direction. In contact improv, I’ve sometimes heard it described as “both people are following”, and it occurs to me that a vital distinction here is that I would say it’s not that both people are following each other (ie treating each other as leader) but rather than both people are following the emergent We. This is quite precisely what I’m talking about as collective consciousness, though within the scope of dance.

The surrendering doesn’t involve letting go of what you want, as an individual—by contrast, it necessitates getting and staying clear on what you want and bringing that into the whole. Not every want makes sense to be put in the center of course (sometimes you just need to scratch your own leg). So there’s a whole learning process around what to surface into the center, and how. In somewhat the same way that people have an internal Self in the IFS sense that functions to manage the interplay between the various needs and ideas of the parts, a sense of We can emerge in groups, that manages everything that’s arising and makes sure things get attended to.

What blocks it?

However, we resist surrendering to a We that we don’t sense we can trust—and rightly so!

This distrust amounts to: I have needs/wants/careabouts, and I trust myself to care for those better than I would trust the We that I expect us to be able to form to care for those.

A sampling of the sorts of perceptions someone might be having as part of this distrust (not necessarily consciously)

  • “the other person/people strongly wants something that’s incompatible with what I want”
  • “I don’t trust this person/people to listen to me”
  • “this person just wants to take advantage of me”
  • “this person isn’t competent in a way I am, so we’d have to slow down”
  • “we’re not on the same wavelength; we don’t really know how to talk/vibe”
  • “this person doesn’t know how to stand up for what they want, so in order to not violate them, I’d have to restrain myself from speaking clearly for what I want”
  • “this person isn’t cool/respectable, so if I associate with them people will lose respect for me”
  • “this person is too cool/important for me, so if I voice any of my needs they’ll just ditch me”
  • or much more generally, “I can’t trust anyone to care for me” or “the world just doesn’t work that way”

(Of course, sometimes there’s a huge win on one dimension that’s worth a cost on some other dimension—every tradeoff is fair game in terms of what you actually value, and the right tradeoff won’t feel like a compromise unless you’re suppressing something, afaict. This is true for this meta-choice of joining a We and in any decision.)

The prospect of forming a We brings up these fears/concerns, and all of them need to be adequately addressed by the (proto)We (including that person) in order to form a stable synergic superorganism. There are also other things that can get in the way:

  • status/rank stuff
  • assumptions that block parallax, like the law of the excluded middle
  • inability to attune/listen
  • judgment
  • blame-based explanations

“Stable” here is not per se about any particular kind of committed relationship, although a healthy marriage is absolutely a We/superorganism. Stable here is simply with reference to the scope of the We. A team needs to maintain coherence long enough to carry out its purpose. A decision is no good if you can’t carry it out, etc.

Why does it matter?

I’ve quipped that the “you only use 10% of your brain” myth is more accurate than people realize—it just doesn’t show up on fMRIs because the whole brain is active, it’s just that 45% is fighting another 45% so the net useful capacity is 10%. (The numbers are fake ofc.)

This is likewise true of many groups. Obviously, in terms of the kinds of object-level tasks a group is able to perform, obviously groups can do many things that individuals can’t do, and in that sense are emergent wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. 

But when it comes to really seeing the world clearly together, making sense of things, and choosing a course of action that everybody wholeheartedly resonates with, we’re much closer to the “10% of our collective brain”. Maybe 1%.

Perhaps in some sense, collective consciousness is the ability of a group to do relevance realization together (John Vervaeke’s term). To the extent that a group is incapable of doing this, it will tend to go on tangents nobody cares about, fail to uncover or appreciate vital information, and be unable to reach collectively satisfying resolutions to questions or decisions. People argue, talk past each other, dodge responsibility, and try to win points for being clever instead of having fun sincerely working together to figure things out.

Vervaeke has some new-ish videos (part 1, part 2) on precisely this topic, which I am stoked about but just discovered and have not yet watched, so maybe he lays out the relationship of collective consciousness and relevance realization more precisely there!


A corollary of the co-flow distrust bit—that what blocks flow is a sense of “I have needs/wants/careabouts, and I trust myself to care for those better than I would trust the We that I expect us to be able to form to care for those“—is that people will be more readily willing to surrender to some sort of We the more desperate they are to meet some need that they don’t think they can meet on their own. So on net, even at great sacrifice, it may feel right to surrender to a larger whole (or simply to another individual’s will). This doesn’t actually form a stable We, because those other unwelcome needs will surface sooner or later and cause discord.

This is part of how cults work, and part of how they don’t work. As far as I can tell, desperation-based motivation always leads to unstable systems and oscillations or explosions. Some amount of desperation-based motivation may be inevitable, but it seems like a would-be collaborative/sane We would need to focus on supporting people to have more self-trust, to attenuate the oscillations.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

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