Climb the staircase to self-transcendence: Jonathan Haidt at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidason

Author and UVA psychology professor Jonathan Haidt kicks off his TED2012 talk with a provocative question: “how many of you think of yourselves as religious?” Some people raise their hands, but not so many. Another question: “Do you think of yourselves as spiritual in any shape or form?” The majority of people in the room raises their hands.

Haidt is making the case that one of the main reasons people feel they have some sort of spiritual life is the search for self-transcendence. Then, in the spirit of every good storyteller grappling with a complicated concept, he helps us out with a metaphor. “Think about the mind as being like a house with many rooms, most of which we’re very familiar with,” he says. “But every now and then it’s like a door appears from nowhere. The door opens, we go through it; we find a secret staircase. We climb the staircase and we enter an altered state of consciousness.”

Climbing a staircase to greater meaning has been used as such a concept a lot over the years. Earlier twentieth century psychologist William James collected case studies and told the case of a young man who described the death of his petty moralistic self in just such terms. And the world’s religions have found many ways to help people “climb the staircase,” through meditation, psychedelic drugs, whirling or dancing or other means. But, Haidt adds, you don’t need religion to get up the staircase and reach self-transcendence. He refers to Jill Bolte Taylor‘s extraordinary talk at TED2008, in which she described her ecstatic experience and union with everything when a stroke shut down the left hemisphere of her brain. Haidt says he himself found awe watching that talk. (I was also there and I should add that I did, too.)

But awe can come from weird places too: for instance, War. So many books say the same thing: nothing brings people together quite like war. So the real question: what do all these very different examples of transcendence actually have in common? Answer: the elevating idea that self can become unimportant–and that can be a good thing. The idea that we move up the food chain of experience was central to the writing of French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, who described the human being as the “homo duplex”, split between the level of the profane, or ordinary, where we satisfy our own individual desires and goals, and a sacred level, where we coalesce into in a team that is far more than the sum of our own parts. Hence the collective emotions that bind people together and make them feel they’re part of a larger whole, such as the collective joy in Britain at the end of World War Two, or the anger in Tahrir Square as the Arab Spring got underway, or the collective grief in the weeks post-9/11.

So now the million-dollar question: is this so-called staircase a feature of our evolutionary design, or is it a bug? Many scientists see religion as memes that get in our minds and make us do crazy things. How could that ever be good? And, how could it ever be good for an organism to overcome self-interest? Haidt has a theory. Darwin noted that when tribes were in competition, always ready to aid and defend each other, that tribe would always succeed: “Selfish and contentious people will not cohere.” We should think of this as multi-level selection, Haidt suggests. While on a rowing boat, the slowest guy is the weakest guy, when the competition expands to other rowers, there becomes no choice but to cooperate. They’re literally all in the same boat. It might sound trite, Haidt says somewhat heatedly as people laugh, but this is fundamental.

So what of free riders, those who’ll merrily come along to exploit the work of others? Well, as it turns out, nature has solved this issue many times–and the favorite solution in nature is simple: to put everyone in the same boat. It’s happened in the bacterial world, and it’s happened when wasps began making primitive hives and forced their kin to cooperate–and spread. And it happened again when ancestors came together around hearths and unlocked the most powerful, constructive force in history: the force of human cooperation. Yet still, human groups are nowhere near as cohesive as hives of wasps. We might fly around, exulting in our freedom, yet we still sometimes wonder: “is that all there is? What’s missing?”

Haidt has at least a suggestion of an answer, presented in a special 3-minute video bonanza at the end of the talk. “What’s missing is that we’re Homo duplex but modern secular society has been built to satisfy our lower, profane self,” he says. Instead, we need to try and find the staircase amid the clutter and become a part of something larger. And this itself explains the resonance of that simple metaphor from John Donne: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”


Steven Pinker: I’m not persuaded by group selection. There are successful cooperative societies, but are the successful ones spontaneous, or do they work by coercion?

Jonathan Haidt: My goal is purely descriptive. There is a big part of human nature that no one is talking about. I came to the study of morality by the study of disgust and taboo, and that got things that you can’t get to by studying kin selection. For academics, anything about groupishness or tribalism is racism.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Why are you linking self-transcendence and the group?

JH: It seems there’s an “off button” for the self, and that’s what got me into it. I started wondering whether this really could be selective. It’s true that having an off button doesn’t automatically make you “groupish,” but it is a pre-condition.

Chris Anderson: How core is having a transcendent experience to having a full life?

JH: For those who have it, they would say that it is absolutely essential. A metaphor that I often use is that we can imagine what it’s like to see it in infra-red, but we can’t really. So those who don’t have it are missing something profound.

CA: Steven and Rebecca presented a world that’s gradually getting better by reason. Do you see the tendency of humans to be groupish as dangerous?

JH: No. This is what got us out of the jungles and savannas, and those were incredibly violent. This is what got us into civilization. We’ve gotten better by building institutions. his is what got us out of the jungles and savannahs. If it wasn’t for the ability to have sacredness

See also: Jonathan Haidt’s talk from TED 2008: On the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.