Awakening Cultural Consciousness

David C. Korten based on Elisabet Sahtouris

culture: (sociology)  "a: the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, speech, action, and artifacts and depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group."
— Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

One of the brain's most important functions is to translate vast quantities of sensory data into information meaningful to the organism's survival, for example, alerting the organism at the most elemental level to the presence of food, physical danger, or a prospective sexual partner. For humans the range of meaningful information extends from such basic survival information to the abstract realm of ideas, beauty, and spiritual insight. Evolution biologist Elisabet Sahtouris presents an especially intriguing and insightful description of this translation process in Chapter 12: "What Play is all About" of her book EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution

"Scientists tell us that inside our eyeballs, light does strike our retina in a way that reminds us of a photographic plate or film, and that the light pattern does produce a related pattern of nerve signals that travel to the brain. These nerve signals, however, are soon joined by a far greater number of other signals coming from inside the brain itself, combining the brain's own information with the incoming information to produce our visual images. Not like a camera at all — rather, what we then see is this complex production of our brains....

In translating sensory data into meaningful information the brain necessarily sorts out the relevant from the irrelevant to draw the attention of the conscious mind to that data the brain's filtering mechanisms deem important. Thus the image presented to the conscious mind is determined partly by the raw sensory data and partly by brain. Perception is deeply influenced by the belief systems that determine what we expect to see. To turn a popular saying on its head: believing is seeing. 

The brain's interpretive mechanism is partly genetic and partly learned. The greater the learned component, the greater the adaptive potential of the species. This helps explain why culture: (1) has a powerful influence over human perceptions and behavior; (2) is essential to human survival and social function, and (3) can become a barrier to survival in situations in which a dramatic change in context requires an adaptive response sharply at odds with a prevailing, but no longer relevant, world view. As Sahtouris describes the evolutionary process: 

"The more complex the nervous system became, the more it developed its own patterns to come between the incoming sensory patterns and the outgoing behavioral patterns. The connections, that is, are no longer direct, and the creatures' worldviews are determined as much or more by their nervous systems and life histories than by the new patterns actually coming in from outside.

"In social species something else comes into play between the senses and behavior — the whole history of interactions among socially related individuals. There is, in a sense, a social brain or mind organized and shaped by social interactions and language over time, incorporated into the brain and behavior of individuals as they learn to live in society....

"Only by agreeing with one another on what the world is all about — on how to make sense of it — can we have human societies or cultures. Most of our individual worldviews actually come from our culture — from family, friends, schools, books, television, and so on — though all of us add our own special touches through personal experience and ideas."

As Sahtouris observes, the ability to receive and interpret sensory data is common to all living beings. She notes, however, that the evolution of human consciousness has added an additional dimension that to the best of our knowledge is distinctive to the human species: the capacity to think of ourselves as observers — to know that we know. 

"While there are always communications going on within and between species..., even among the cells of our body..., no other species investigates the others as we do, trying to figure out what they are like and what they are up to. No other creatures think of themselves as observers of the whole world, indeed the whole universe — all the others simply participate in co-creating it. Nor did we ourselves think this way when we first became human." 

This ability to recognize ourselves as observers of the behavior of ourselves and others was a critical step in the evolution of the human consciousness. We are now in the midst of taking what may prove to be another bold step in the evolution of consciousness of comparable significance: an awakening of cultural consciousness that allows us to see our cultural beliefs as social constructs that at best can never be more than mere approximations of a more complex reality. Sahtouris explains:

"When we look at human history to see what a people's worldview was in a different time and a different place, we see that worldviews have evolved along with the visible aspects of culture, and that there is a very powerful relationship between the worldviews that people hold and the kind of society they construct — an inseparable relationship, that is, between the way people believe their world is and the things they do to one another and that world. In practice, our worldview is our script for the play of life, assigning each of us our role within it.

"Until the last half century before the new millennium, it did not occur to people that they could have anything to do with creating their worldview. All through history, people thought the way they saw the world was the way the world really was — in other words, they saw their worldview as the true worldview and all others as mistaken and therefore false."

Every culture captures some elements of a deeper truth, but each represents only one of many possible ways of interpreting the data generated by the human senses. Although most cultures adapt over time in response to changing circumstances, the process of adaptation is generally gradual and largely unconscious. Since cultures are by their nature self-limiting, any established cultural worldview can lead to serious misinterpretations of sensory data when rapidly changing circumstances render it obsolete  — as now demonstrated so dramatically by the case of the dominant global culture fostered by the suicide economy.

The circumstances of humanity are now changing far too rapidly for the conventional, largely unconscious processes of cultural regeneration and adaptation to suffice. Consequently, these must now become conscious, self-aware process open to the possibilities suggested by the stories of many cultures and subject to continuous testing for their relevance to rapidly changing human circumstances. This is key to taking the step to a new level of human function that an awakening of cultural consciousness makes possible.

Revised September 21, 2001. First posted July 18, 2001