The brain’s big bang - and why it won’t be the last. Griffin and Tyrrell on meaning, mysticism and mental illness
This interview by John Zada with Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell on their latest book Godhead, the brain's big bang, is re published from the The Planisphere and was first published as “The Brain’s Big Bang – And Why it Won’t Be the Last” in the journal Human Givens, Vol. 18, No. 4, 2011.
ZADA: Some people reading this interview will be familiar with your work: the human givens approach to psychotherapy and your book of the same name. But your most recent book, Godhead: the brain’s big bang, is packed with new knowledge. By building upon the organising ideas in human givens psychology and bringing in knowledge and discoveries from areas as diverse as archaeology, anthropology, ancient history, philosophy, physics, religion and spirituality, it offers an explanatory framework for how the entire universe operates. It is a deep exploration of both the human and the universal condition and begins with one of the most important events in collective human evolution, which took place about 40,000 years ago – something which you call the ‘brain’s big bang’. Could you say why this is central to your book?
TYRRELL: First, we should say that the expression ‘the brain’s big bang’ is not ours. Archaeologists have used it for a long while.
GRIFFIN: Yes, we don’t claim to have originated the phrase. It arose when it became clear from archaeological research that there was massive evidence for the sudden appearance of a new level of human consciousness from about 40,000 years ago. Tools and other artefacts of extraordinary subtlety were created from then on, including wonderful works of art, deep down in caves. This provided cogent evidence that something remarkable had occurred to the human mind by around that time. It is arguable that this evidence is not confined to that period and there may well have been an evolutionary process going on in Africa for 60,000 years prior to then, although the actual evidence for this is pretty minimal. But it is possible that individuals and small groups may have accessed the brain state we describe in the book for thousands of years before it became sufficiently widespread in the genome for a major legacy of cultural artefacts to be left behind.
ZADA: What was the brain’s big bang?
TYRRELL: Our view of it has developed from human givens psychology and all that we have been teaching to mental health and other professionals about effective ways to help those with emotional and behavioural difficulties. One of the things they learn from us is that the brains of mammals, including early humans, had always been accessing what we call an internal reality simulator: the rapid eye movement state, known as REM, in which dreaming takes place. Somehow, by about 40,000 years ago, people had become able to access this reality simulator consciously – outside of the sleep state – and could daydream. In other words, we had evolved the ability to imagine. This was the turning point, the ‘big bang’ that changed everything.
Once you have imagination, you can mentally imagine solutions to problems, become creative, think about people who have died, instead of just those who are in front of you, and start questioning in abstract terms, “What is the meaning of this?” In other words, we could properly think about things in ways that we couldn’t do before, such as wondering what other people might feel if we took a certain course of action. For example, what would the people of another tribe think if we started to hunt in their valley?
GRIFFIN: When you access the REM state, you can envisage a future; you can talk about things that might or might not happen – animals that have not arrived at a watering hole yet, for example. New descriptive words would have been needed for things not immediately in front of people, such as they might need for planning journeys – hunting or foraging trips. So it is because we could envisage a future and also review the past that we developed the language of complexity, the language of tenses, etc. It was imagination that made this possible.
TYRRELL: Whereas animals only have a present tense; their language is all about signalling in the moment – mating calls, warning cries, joyous sounds when food is discovered, etc. All the higher apes communicate like this. But, once we could access the reality simulator consciously and imagine consequences, we needed a more complex language to express our newly developed orientation concerning the past and future. At this point storytelling would have flourished and more complex cultural changes could be passed on through the generations. All this seems to have spread quickly throughout the human race. So the big bang came about because we could access the dreaming brain while we were awake.
ZADA: And, of course, alongside this accessing of the REM state in the waking brain, a reasoning faculty also developed to keep that REM state in check. You describe the explosion of mental potentiality, this parallel track of REM state and reason, as coming with a price for those who were not endowed with the right balance of both. And this leads you into the area of mental health.
TYRRELL: That’s right. All these ideas we have developed came from our thinking about what makes a person healthy. Very obviously, once you have imagination, you can worry because worrying means thinking about what might go wrong in the future. And it is worrying that produces all the consequences of anxiety and depression.
GRIFFIN: It became obvious to us that, once you have conscious access to the REM state, you can overload it. The REM state evolved in mammals to perform the biological function of programming in instinctive behaviours and keeping them in a state of good repair. But, through the conscious use of the REM state, you can overload it, which risks triggering anxiety disorders and depression and, in certain people with latent potential, psychotic experiences. So the price we paid for accessing imagination, creativity and language was mental illness – on a scale not experienced before.
ZADA: Yet you describe, amazingly, that even some of the individuals that had to pay that high price, either through autistic spectrum disorder or psychosis, still benefited in ways that allowed them as individuals to serve civilisation as a whole.
GRIFFIN: Yes. What makes the human race so extraordinarily successful is that, although individually we may all be pretty unbalanced, and have a limited spectrum of abilities, collectively we can combine our abilities so that not all of us are insane at the same time! So there are always some sane-thinking people about and a whole range of abilities that can be drawn upon. That is the genius of the human species. But nonetheless it is true that, in having to develop our left neocortex so as to hold our imaginations and emotions in check, some people reached a point of overdevelopment where they lost touch with their emotions and more subtle instincts. These people would now be described as being on the autistic spectrum. Although that was disadvantageous in many respects, it did have one advantage that we now see clearly: some of those on the high-performing end of the autistic spectrum are able to focus on tasks for long periods of time. They are also inclined to ask questions that others would not bother asking and doing so has led them to make huge contributions to philosophy and science. There are outstanding individuals in the world of information technology, for example, who have made extraordinary contributions to our culture, and they couldn’t have done it if they didn’t have some of the Asperger’s traits that enable them to maintain an intensity of focus for long periods of time, so as to solve difficult problems and bring about innovations.
ZADA: In your previous books, you explain the important part that the REM state plays in brain functions such as dreaming, the programming of innate patterns and instincts and in trance states, and you also explore its use as a psychotherapeutic tool, in the form of guided imagery. But it seems, from reading this new book, that the REM state has an even more central role, not just in terms of how humans access the REM state while awake but also as a gateway through which humans can gain access to another realm, where greater knowledge exists.
TYRRELL: We noticed, as many others have, that when people go into trance states you see rapid eye movements. You see these when people daydream, access emotional memories, hear voices, or willingly enter induced trance states through meditation and dancing. Since, as Michael Jouvet, a pioneering sleep researcher, first noted, our genetic instincts are implanted into us in the REM state before we are born, it seems possible that the REM state is the natural portal for accessing higher knowledge from other realms. Many people can sense that knowledge can somehow come to us through certain types of dream. There are descriptions of this going back 4,500 years to the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh– one of the oldest and most moving stories rooted in the ancient wisdom tradition of humankind.
GRIFFIN: And, if the REM state is indeed the portal through which our genetic inheritance is programmed, it may well be that, as Plato speculated, there is a world of forms – a greater world of patterns and more complete knowledge – which can also be accessed. If such a world were to exist, it would be tenable that the portal to that world could be the REM state. We give lots of examples in the book of people who have received incredible inspirations whilst in REM trance states.
ZADA: So, in a sense, can we say that the brain’s big bang was not a meaningless occurrence but that it arose as a necessary next step towards humans being able to access higher knowledge?
GRIFFIN: Yes! Spiritual traditions maintain this too. Take someone like Rumi, the great 13th century Persian poet who is also recognised as a great exponent of mysticism. He said, many hundreds of years before Darwin, that evolutionary developments take place in response to necessity. Evolution is not just a random process; there has to be a pressure for evolutionary events to take place. So, when imagination was triggered off in human beings, it wasn’t just a random mutation; there was a great pressure upon the very limited imagination people had up to that time – a huge pressure on the genome, so that gradually people started being born with a genetic potential to extend the REM state. We are not saying that Darwin was wrong but that a mutation happens not randomly but in response to a pressure that would facilitate a particular development. Mutations are selected from a field of forms that already potentially exists—
TYRRELL: —a field of higher patterns. These ideas connect back so well to human givens psychology because of its understanding that everything that manifests does so through a pattern-matching process. All good therapists, for example, know that the brain is a pattern-matching organism and that this has great relevance for treating psychological trauma. The universe consists of patterns of possibilities and, when you are in the REM state and achieve certain mental states where you can connect up to these higher patterns, they will flood into you. We give descriptions in the new book of how that happens and give examples. Patterns of knowledge flood into certain individuals, those who have mastered their ego and thereby gained enough spare capacity to receive it.
GRIFFIN: We are not postulating any extra metaphysical elements in this hypothesis. It is a completely naturalistic one. Later in the book we do account for and explain that, within the laws of physics and the parameters of science as currently established, it is possible to create a hypothesis that permits information patterns to exist and potentially to be accessible, without in any way contravening normal scientific laws.
ZADA: This process, then, I guess, would fly in the face of reductionist scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, who attempt to break the universe down to its smallest components and thereby rob it of its meaning.
GRIFFIN: Dawkins’ approach to science is, of course, essentially a religious one. He holds on to a reductionist philosophy with a degree of commitment that any Christian or Muslim fundamentalist would be proud of. And the problem with fundamentalism of any kind is that it excludes subtlety and complexity. By that I mean that its assumption that causality is unidirectional, ie from the bottom up, prevents it from seeing that it is really multidirectional. This multidirectionality is now well established in physics and increasingly so in biology. Dawkins attempted to simulate evolution with a computer programme. He tried to show that complex patterns can evolve, but it is very easy to see that the complex pattern that he tried to show evolving by random mutation already existed in the programme. So what he actually showed – inadvertently – was that complex patterns have to exist at a certain level of reality before they manifest on planet Earth in organic form.
ZADA: A number of your professional colleagues that work from a human givens perspective might see some of the ideas that are included in your book as being outside of your traditional field. What would your response be to those that say that you are going a step or two too far into what they might regard as unrelated areas like mysticism?
TYRRELL: There will be some human givens therapists who will not be comfortable going along with what we are saying and that doesn’t detract from what they are achieving, using the human givens approach. Everyone takes from human givens ideas what they can. What we are saying in this new book is that the ideas and skills we have been teaching for the last 15 years relate to larger, richer concepts and, for those who want to expand their understanding, there is a step further they can take. People always have the option of refining their thinking and transforming themselves in such a way that they become better able to recognise truths about the nature of reality – and they also have the option of choosing not to do so.
GRIFFIN: The ideas that are unfolded in our new book actually existed in the first formulating principles of human givens: the understandings about pattern matching, and consciousness arising from pattern matching, and the importance of the REM state. So this is an organic flowering of ideas that have already proved their worth. But nonetheless there are people who will not want to take the journey with us as far as we have now gone and that is a perfectly legitimate response. And the way we can address them is to say that human givens has proven itself to be an incredibly powerful way of helping people achieve better health quickly in all kinds of realms, from mental health to education, and in making all kinds of organisations more effective. It has proved its worth and none of what has been achieved is invalidated by the ideas put forward in this book.
It’s no different from how we use our ability to read. Some people might use their literacy to better themselves at work, to study, to entertain themselves or to improve their social life. Others might use it by becoming interested in poetry and finding it intensely meaningful. There are many literate people who have no interest in poetry but it would be a very sorry person indeed who would gainsay others’ rights to enjoy it, just because they didn’t themselves. It would be very narrow minded to say that poetry is not a valuable source of meaning for other people. We feel confident that the breadth of people involved in the human givens approach, even if they choose not to take this journey with us, will fully appreciate and show tolerance towards those who find meaning in exploring human givens ideas in their richer psychological, cosmological and metaphysical expression.
ZADA: One of the underlying themes of your book is that all knowledge is connected; mental illness, learning, consciousness and enlightenment are connected at a fundamental level, and physics and psychotherapy are linked. How would you say that your work with the human givens approach to mental health connects to the biggest questions facing science?
TYRRELL: It connects in many ways. Take what happens when people feel that there is no meaning in their lives; they are more likely to commit suicide. It is fundamental that life should be meaningful. It is as a consequence of the brain’s big bang that the search for meaning is now innate in us. Meaning arises from imagination. Physicists find meaning in cosmology and the quest to understand the universe. The problem is that, when people are marinated in consumerism, materialism or reductionist tendencies, which have become the hallmarks of our culture, the feeling that life has deeper meaning evaporates for many people. People need to have a reason for getting up in the morning or going to work and know that this is meaningful. If meaning is stripped away from their everyday activities, they quickly get anxious and depressed. As therapists, we see this all the time.
GRIFFIN: As Ivan says, it is fundamental to human sanity that this need for meaning is fulfilled. People fulfil it in different ways, some through having children and supporting them, some through being excellent at sport, music or some other activity that stretches them, some by being part of organisations that challenge and stretch them. But there is a proportion of humanity that, although finding such activities nourishing, still feels that there is something missing. They sense that there is a greater reality and have a need to connect to something bigger than the sorts of things that I’ve just mentioned. For many, this connection is found through traditional religions but, for many others today, traditional religions no longer cut it; they feel that these are not relevant to their lives. And yet a yearning to be a part of something bigger, for something more nourishing, remains. They want their lives to amount to more, yet they can be embarrassed to look for that meaning because the high priests of reductionist science like Richard Dawkins so often belittle that aspiration and say it is meaningless.
TYRRELL: And so do a lot of the media.
GRIFFIN: Yes. Reductionists say that trying to connect to a greater pattern is a pointless activity because we live in a meaningless universe and are just the creations of random dust particles. Emotional adherence to this view is, I would say, a religion in its own right but not one that fulfils the need for meaning. So part of our motivation in writing this book is to show that it is possible to embrace scientific method and the most fundamental scientific principles without in any way excluding the possibility that greater patterns of meaning exist and that humans can reach towards them and aspire to connect with them.
ZADA: And I guess an extension of that, bringing it back to human givens, is that meeting our own innate emotional needs, and helping others to do likewise, achieves one of the fundamental prerequisites for higher learning and spiritual development, because you can’t evolve without having first laid the foundations of that learning?
TYRRELL: Yes. When people don’t get their basic needs met sufficiently well enough in a balanced way, they become emotional – anxious, angry, depressed or greedy – and then they don’t have any spare attention capacity for seeking beyond the material world and its satisfactions. We are quite a plastic, flexible species, so our needs don’t have to be met to an exact measure. Like any form of nutrition, it’s a question of getting by with just enough … and sometimes too much or too little. It’s only when a person’s physical and emotional needs are seriously not met that they can get obsessed about being hungry, thirsty, feeling insecure, lonely, frightened, etc. And when they are not achieving anything, not being stretched, that too causes problems. Vast numbers of people are not being stretched by their education or their work and that causes a low level of depression in people – unhappiness. The brain is like a muscle; it needs to be stretched. When we don’t stretch our children’s brains properly, for example, they don’t thrive. So developing various competencies within oneself is critically important – being stretched is meaningful.
ZADA: You mentioned that the brain’s big bang took place because a need arose for it. If you say that certain knowledge comes into being because of a need for that knowledge, what is it about the human condition right now that you might argue necessitates the dissemination of the kind of knowledge contained in your book?
TYRRELL: My first thought about that is that the modern world appears to be going to hell in a handcart. Although humanity has many wonderful achievements to its name, we have also created more chaos: economic madness, huge financial debt mountains and food and water shortages for many millions of people. We’re running out of cheap energy sources and there appears to be massive corruption in all governments and industries. The renewable energy industry, for example, is hugely corrupt – the exploitation of grants for ineffective wind farms could exhaust the money available for the development of sustainable energy resources. We are creating enormous bills for future generations to pay, to say nothing about the rise in mental illness that all these problems exacerbate.
GRIFFIN: So, in essence then, the reason that we think this book has a function at this time is that the greatest ecological crisis mankind has ever faced is before us. We are in danger of extinguishing the human species and, perhaps, many other life forms on this planet unless there is a major change in our culture and in our way of approaching things; this has to happen in a relatively short space of time, otherwise human life may well be doomed. So we are in a situation where there is a need for a huge change in consciousness. Human beings have to raise their game. We need to become more emotionally intelligent and environmentally literate about these pressures.
The funny thing is, though, that the knowledge and skills to do it exist, but we need to upskill the people. We need more people to understand what constitutes good mental health and what constitutes effective protection of our environment, etc. It is only when that knowledge is taken on board that a climate will arise in which another evolutionary leap forward can be taken – analogous to the one 40,000 years ago – when human beings will access an even higher level of consciousness. If enough people take on board the kinds of knowledge that have been developed over recent decades, there is every reason to think that a mutation could, indeed, take place in consciousness – human beings could actually achieve the next level as required for our development as a species.
ZADA: Could you expand on how that might be brought about?
GRIFFIN: That is a great question. Before the transformation of consciousness 40,000 years or so ago, which we have been talking about, there were probably isolated individuals who had already achieved that transformation of consciousness – accessing their imagination – thousands, or even tens of thousands, of years prior to that. But the genetic selection hadn’t become strong enough for it to become a widespread mutation. Nonetheless, because of selection pressures as discussed earlier, it eventually became the gift of the human race as a whole. So, if that is the pattern of it, it is highly likely that for perhaps some thousands of years since, there have been individuals who already have the mutation required for a higher form of consciousness that gives them the kind of sanity and wisdom that will be required in the future. And, just as happened at the time of the brain’s first big bang, such individuals may become less isolated and more common if the species responds appropriately to this challenge. We would expect to see more and more people achieving this mutation in consciousness so that, over time, it actually becomes the possession of a significant proportion of the human race.
TYRRELL: You don’t need the whole human race to transmute. It doesn’t work like that anyway because all the time there are people trying to prevent progress and stop it happening. There is a kind of balancing act between the arc of ascent and the arc of descent.
ZADA: Do you have any kind of insight as to where humanity is in that process right now?
GRIFFIN: Well we know that we are working within relatively short time frames here. Only an optimist would think we have as much as 1,000 years, because the pressure is really on.
TYRRELL: Perhaps less than 100 years then.
ZADA: The pressure is also, in itself, the catalyst because, as you said, it is only in response to pressure that change happens.
GRIFFIN: Yes. And I think we should be optimistic that the change is underway and has been for some time and that people of discernment looking around the world today will see it manifesting in all kinds of ways.
ZADA: Can you give me some examples of what gives you optimism that things are looking up? I’m putting you on the spot here.
GRIFFIN: You are! In the book we give examples of people who have contacted what we call the “universal relaton field”, where ideas emerge from. We also give examples of individuals who have achieved the highest states of spiritual enlightenment even now in our communities. It would be extremely pessimistic to think that such people do not exist and have the knowledge available that brings hope with it.
TYRRELL: There is material widely available that contains the nutriment necessary to develop the type of minds that are needed for the world to move on. It is through immersion in it that the mechanism by which change comes about becomes apparent. A parallel would be with how the knowledge that hygiene was important spread because eventually people could see the advantage of it: people lived longer. But it takes time for more subtle ideas than hand washing to spread. However, with this evolutionary pressure for change mounting, we know we need to start directing our own conscious evolution. And, if we don’t – well, nothing is certain – the human race could devolve and we could become extinct, as many species before us have done.
ZADA: Would you agree that the communications revolution is a positive thing that is bringing about change by spreading knowledge faster?
GRIFFIN: It undoubtedly has that potential, but everything has a downside. At the same time as making real and genuine knowledge available, it is also in many cases degrading real knowledge because people confuse knowledge with information.
TYRRELL: And when you have a mass of information you have to have a means of discriminating what is useful and important and see how it all connects up. If you don’t have organising ideas in your head to help you do that, or someone to help you do it, your brain is just swamped. Information overload is a serious problem for our culture. You only have to spend a little time on Google trying to research something and see how easily you can be overloaded with information. It’s hard for us all to discriminate between what is valuable and what isn’t. We spend most of the time using information to confirm our conditioned prejudices. The development of human consciousness is not going to come from swamping ourselves with information. It will come when enough people develop their powers of discrimination.
GRIFFIN: Having said that, I don’t have the remotest doubt that the media have a hugely significant role to play in the development of these cultural changes.
ZADA: What sort of vision do you have for our society? How will it look? What would be different from what is going on at the moment?
TYRRELL: Well, schools, for a start. It would become axiomatic that it is not just the innate needs of children that is important but also the innate needs of teachers, parents, school caretakers, receptionists and governors that have to be considered. Teaching by targets would be abandoned. Those struggling in chaotic families, often single mums, often very young and even illiterate, would be taught about their own innate needs so that they start to recognise that their children have innate needs too. Then that knowledge can be used to improve the way that children are brought up.
You can look at the hospital system, the police force, the legal system, the university system, politics and diplomacy, and, in all of them, bring better ideas to bear. But the problem is that the people who champion the old ideas and get their salaries by continuing with them, or who have invested a lot of time and effort and money in being trained in these old ideas, resist change. This is a perennial problem. People don’t, by and large, have the humility to admit that they need to do things differently and that they still have something to learn.
GRIFFIN: The culture in our organisations is often toxic and needs to evolve, whether it is health organisations, private business organisations or government organisations. They are all huge contributors to the rising rates of mental illness because they do not understand how to create a healthy psychological environment in which people can thrive. So we need huge cultural changes within organisations.
TYRRELL: I used to work a lot with businesses and knew managing directors of many companies; two of them broke down in tears in front of me because of the pressures that shareholders had put them under. They had been reduced to nervous wrecks, with skin problems, tics and other ailments that were symptomatic of the pressure they were put under. There is something fundamentally flawed in organisations that do that to people. Idries Shah, who made a great study of this, put it beautifully in an interview in Psychology Today when he said, “What I really want is for the products of the last 50 years of psychological research to be studied by the public, by everybody, so that the findings become part of their way of thinking. At the moment we have this great body of psychological information and refuse to use it.”
GRIFFIN: What we are trying to do is to spread some sound psychological knowledge around, so that it can be used in practical ways to improve the mental health services, educational practices and the way organisations are managed.
ZADA: The old way is essentially bankrupt now. It has run its course. And I guess this is especially problematic because the entire world has become one place, unlike in the past where civilisations were separated from one another and, when one died, another would rise from the ashes. Now that everything is internationally so intermingled, there is nowhere, really, to establish a new civilisation anymore. We’ve run out of options.
GRIFFIN: It is because everything is so interrelated that we have a clash of cultures and ideologies that could potentially take out the human species. But one of the things that human givens psychology offers is a lingua franca, a clean language that gets underneath ideology. It is through taking the perspective of innate needs that people in conflict zones will be able to resolve conflicts, rather than arguing about whose ideology is right or wrong.
TYRRELL: What gets in the way is high emotion, as former diplomat John Bell, who has worked extensively in the Middle East, showed so vividly in a recent article in this journal. The high emotional states that people are conditioned into stops them admitting that each side has innate emotional needs that the other is preventing from being met. We know that, if only different parties could calm down enough to acknowledge that all human beings have innate needs that must be met, they could reach a position where they could talk to one another and settle things.
ZADA: Their aims would both be the same – mutually beneficial. Not just my aim or their aim. We need aims that are working towards better relationships.
TYRRELL: Yes. And this is as true for couples and families as it is for countries. If someone’s needs are not being met in a relationship, it collapses. So there should be mutual recognition that both sides have needs and that they should be met.
GRIFFIN: Conflict, irrespective of the language in which it is expressed, is never about right and wrong, never about truth and evil. It is always about a clash of needs not being met. I come from Ireland, where there was conflict for the last 800 years, particularly the last 30 years in the north of Ireland, and thousands were killed. The conflict was essentially about a watering hole with two tribes wanting access to it. They expressed it in the language of religion but, at the end of the day, it was about granting rights for both tribes to have access to the water hole. This is what underlies conflict. Needs not being met.
TYRRELL: And it is the innate need for meaning that Godhead addresses. It explores, through the explosive origin of creativity, mysticism and mental illness, the meaning of life and of human destiny itself.
Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell are co-founders of the human givens approach and of the Human Givens College. Their latest book is Godhead: The Brain’s Big Bang (HG Publishing, £20.00).