Novelty is about the unknown. It is inherently captivating in some way, though this fades with exposure and is replaced by familiarity. I think that sentience may exist to convert novelty to the familiar, to aide us in the pursuit of engineering reflexes that guide us through our environment. In a state of total familiarity, we may not need sentience and may rely more fully on reflexive cognitions and perceptions.
In the midst of writing this post, my friend circle was discussing how an aesthetic sense could exist. I believe that what makes something appealing has many factors. One would be status appeal. Consider Gucci. This expensive brand is used to signal status. We find their products appealing, in part, because they represent power. Now consider Pokemon. While it clearly isn’t the only factor of its appeal, there are undoubtedly many who enjoy this franchise simply because others do. This would be a popularity appeal, or perhaps something deeper like a longingness to bond and connect or even love via a shared interest and synchronicity. I think that underneath a lot of these social factors, there are some more innate factors to why things appeal to some kind of aesthetic sense.
A beautiful meadow of green luscious grass probably appeals to some sense we developed to determine the qualities of our environment. Such a meadow may be a great place to live, thriving with life, food, and security. The effect of the aesthetic sense seems to give a strong almost indescribible feeling. These themes may become utilized in a lot of fantasy works to invoke some sort of presumably evolved feeling, like in my current favorite, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (shown below). Besides beauty, there are images and scenes that invoke many other emotions such as fear. You might imagine the scene of a concrete underground sewer system to look kind of scary or even disturbing. I do not think I can easily put to words all of the different sorts of “aesthetic senses” that I’ve noticed throughout my life, but you probably have a good idea of what I mean by now. In adulthood, music seems to be the most powerful eliciter of feelings that stem from a reaction to the senses. Though, on psychedelics I have noticed forests appearing to elicit strong emotions like music can.
I think that children are particularly sensitive to these aesthetic senses. My hypothesis is that these senses are used initially to make judgments about how to interact with our environment based on a complex mixture of innate reactions and learned prior judgments we’ve created about the world around us. The reason I think that children are more sensitive is because I think that adults have already become hyper-familiar with their world and most of it appears quite mundane, losing its magic. We replace our reliance on these aesthetic senses with something more knowledge-based. A child sees some unfamiliar city alley as a mysterious zone that parents have warned them about. An adult has already mapped out predictions of that alley and often feels very little in the way of mystery. The world is rendered grey by merely observing it over time, much like the tolerance to some euphoric drug.
My hypothesis here is that novelty is inherently captivating and functions as a gateway to the aesthetic mode of perception. Our curiosity can only ever be for what is novel and what is mysterious. That which is known fades away from our attention and our captivation is replaced by automation. We perceive the world because we have no reflex to respond to it with. In some sense, our sentience seems to be the innate reflex that reacts to the outside world. Our attention is drawn towards the mystery and the unexpected so that we may use observation to convert the unknown to the known. Once the world becomes known, a reflex can take hold and we can reallocate our attention elsewhere, freeing our mental bandwidth.
I often wonder if we would lose our sentience if we become omniscient. As if we might become a deadened robot, an artificial intelligence created by our own brain. Everything familiar (which would be literally everything) would slip away from our attention and become background noise. We may filter everything from our existence only to be left with habitual responses and solutions to every scenario. With the future fully predicted, our reactions would be determined beforehand. We would move like some kind of inevitable physics, like water flowing down a mountain stream.
I worry that the path to adulthood is something like this, though, of course, we are not even close to omniscience. The child exists in a special state of novelty. For adults, new streets and towns may be somewhat novel but they are created from copy-pastes of objects in every other city. For a child, even these objects that comprise the cityscape are novel. I think the magic of the world of the child emerges from this mystery. The adult is left with a slow drip of novelty that keeps them barely conscious of the world around them. Their world has become but scripted reflexes of an imagined external world and much less the observation of their senses. They have been trained to see the world through the filter of their past experiences, their familiarity, and their knowledge.
What if we were to lose access to most novelty in life? It appears that novelty is a diminishing resource for the adult. I’ve wondered if dementias are diseases of ennui. Perhaps our intelligence is mostly used to sort out and create reflexes to the novel and without the pressure to use intelligence in the scarcity of novelty, it may decay and atrophy, leaving us less and less capable of maintaining the sentience required for anything other than lying in bed and waiting for the total annihilation of one’s existence. Fascinatingly, ADHD has often been linked to novelty-seeking tendencies (Donfrancesco et al., 2015) and also might be a risk factor for dementia (Tzeng et al., 2019; Callahan et al., 2017). Perhaps their novelty addiction leads them more quickly to the ennui of a novelty-deprived existence.
Cannabis appears to really amplify the aesthetic sense. Streets begin to look like movie sets. As if they were designed to elicit some sort of feeling, which, to be fair, they probably were designed this way. Simultaneously, I often find myself losing track of where I am, in environments that would be otherwise familiar to me. I look at a palm tree in a suburb and it appears to feel like I am at the beach (it still fits my schemas at this stage). It’s as if I haven’t assumed my location based on familiarity. On stronger highs, street signs appear to be strange objects. Walls and buildings sandwiching streets appear like strange artificial cave walls. The immersion is grand. I think cannabis and psychedelics (via different mechanisms) have the ability to bring us back to a state of unfamiliarity. To see the world as if we have never seen it. My automatic reactions are stripped away and I can begin to see the layers of my reality that I had long forgotten since childhood. This grants a special power in rewriting the way you see reality, both valuable and dangerous, decided by either fate or the user’s choice, I’m not sure yet.
The sense of expanded consciousness may be true on some level, but it may be nothing like omniscience. Instead, it is almost the opposite: the ascience and hypersentience. By stripping away reflexive cognition and perception, we may be able to tap into more rudimentary modes of assessing the world and perhaps return to a more sensory and aware state. Adults may have knowledge but children may rely more on perception and stranger, yet to be described methods of judgment. When returning to these states during psychedelic/THC use, we may be bewildered and fascinated by these alternative ways of perceiving and interpreting our senses. I’ve argued this formally in The Phoenix Effect. The idea that children are more conscious than adults isn’t entirely new: the developmental psychologist known as Alison Gopnik has also claimed that children may be more conscious than adults.
There is actually some evidence that THC strips away reflexive perceptual modes in research showing that users of THC will sometimes not be tricked by optical illusions (Koethe et al., 2006). The same has been observed in schizophrenia and in monkeys on dissociatives (Dima et al., 2009; Dakin, Carlin, & Hemsley, 2005; Shoshina et al., 2011; Silverstein et al., 2013; Norton et al., 2008; Jacobsen, Barros, & Maior, 2017). Optical illusions seem to be reflexive perceptual “conclusions” that rely on predictions based on contextual clues. In a sense, many optical illusions are like predictive perception, kind of like predictive text on smartphones. I’ve argued more fully about this concept in Desummation.
If you could, please describe experiences that you’ve had that seemed like “increased consciousness”. Does it fit with what I’ve described here?
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