The Helmsman and the Lookout

There is an apt metaphor for the relationship between what we think of as conscious willpower and the openness of perception.

The egoic consciousnes is the helmsman of the boat as it heads along the river of experience, but he is positioned at the back of the boat crowded with passengers. While he controls the steering, he is driving blind and can’t see what is coming. He primarily operates on memory and mental maps, habit and heuristics. He knows the river or else similar rivers, at least most of the time, as long as remains within the familiar. Still, his predictive abilities are limited and hence so are his steering abilities.

This is why a lookout is needed at the front of the boat. The lookout, although having no direct control, can give warnings. Stop! Don’t go that direction! The lookout has the information the helmsman needs, but the helmsman only listens to the lookout when something is wrong. The lookout is the veto power of volition, what is called free-won’t rather than freewill.

I came across this metaphor from a Chacruna article by Martin Fortier, Are Psychedelic Hallucinations Actually Metaphorical Perceptions?:

“Recent neuroscientific models of the brain stress the importance of prediction within perceptual experience.3 The tenets of the predictive model of the brain can be described with a useful analogy: that of helmsmen steering collective boats on the rivers of lowland South America.

“In the Amazon, to go from one riparian town to another, people usually take a collective boat. Most boats carry between 20 to 60 passengers. These boats are steered in an intriguing way. The helmsman is positioned at the rear part of the boat. Because of this, he cannot see much of the river; what he sees in front of him are mostly the backs of passengers. Yet, the helmsman critically needs to know in minute detail where he is going, as the river is replete with shallows and floating tree trunks that must be avoided by any means. The usual way to make sure that the helmsman is able to steer the boat safely is to position a lookout at the front part of the boat and to have him warn the helmsman in case anything dangerous shows up ahead.

“The human perceptual system roughly works like these collective boats! “Predictive models” of perception strongly contrast with “constructive models,” developed in the 1970s. According to constructive models of visual perception, the retina collects very gross and sparse information about the world, and each level of the visual system elaborates on this limited primary information and makes it gradually richer and more complex.4

“Let us say that the lookout stands for primary perceptual areas—low-level areas of the brain—and the helmsman stands for more frontal areas; the high-level areas of the brain. Furthermore, the trajectory of the boat stands for conscious perception. In the case of classical constructive models of the brain, perception is taken to be a gradual enrichment of information coming from lower areas of the brain. So, to use the boat analogy, constructive models of perception have it that the trajectory of the boat—i.e., conscious perception—is determined by the lookout sending warning signals to the helmsman—i.e., by bottom-up processes.

“Predictive models conceive of perception in a very different way. The first step of determining the trajectory of the boat is the helmsman guessing, on the basis of his past experience, where the boat can safely go. So, within the predictive model, the lookout plays no constitutive role. The lookout influences the trajectory of the boat only when the helmsman’s predictions are proved wrong, and when the lookout needs to warn him.

“Two niceties must be added. First, bottom-up error signals can be variously weighted. In noisy or uncertain situations, bottom-up prediction errors have a smaller influence than usual:5 in noisy or uncertain situations, the lookout’s warnings are not taken into account by the helmsman as much as usual. Second, in the boat analogy, there is only one lookout and one helmsman. In the brain, several duos of lookouts and helmsmen are working together, and each of these duos is specialized in a specific perceptual modality.”

This usually works well. Still, the egoic consciousness can be tiring, especially when it attempts to play both roles. If we never relax, we are in a constant state of stress and anxiety. That is how we get suck in loops of thought, where what the helmsman imagines about the world becomes his reality and so he stops listening as much to the lookout.

This has become ever more problematic for humanity as the boundaries of egoic consciousness have rigidified. Despite egoic self-confidence, we have limited ability to influence our situation and, as research shows, overtaxing ourselves causes us to become ineffective. No matter how hard it tries, the ego-self can’t force the ideology of freewill onto the world. Sometimes, we need to relax and allow ourselves to float along, with trust that the lookout will warn us when necessary.

There are many practices that help us with this non-egoic state. Meditation is the simplest, in which we train the mind to take a passive role but with full alertness. It allows the lookout to relax and take in the world without all of the nervous-inducing jerking around of a helmsman out of control while obsessed with control.

Another method is that of psychedelics, the experience of which is often referred to as a ‘trip’. Traditionally, a shaman or priest would have taken over the role of helmsman, allowing the participants to temporarily drop that role. Without someone else to play that role, a standard recommendation has been to let go and allow yourself to float along, just go with the current and trust where it takes you. In doing this, the environment is important in supporting this state of mind. This is a way of priming the mind with set and setting.

Richard M. Doyle explained this strategy, in Darwin’s Pharmacy (p. 18):

“If psychedelics left any consistent trace on the literature of trip reports and the investigation of psychedelic states, it is that “resistance” is unlikely to be a useful tactic and that experiment is unavoidable. Leary, whose own “setting” was consistently clustered around practices of the sacred, offered this most compressed algorithm for the manipulation (“programming”) of psychedelic experience, a script asking us to experimentally give ourselves over to the turbulence: “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.” Such an experiment begins, but is not completed, by a serene letting go of the self under the pull of a transhuman and improbable itinerary. This letting go, of course, can be among the greatest of human achievements, the very goal of human life: Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century German heretic, reminds us that this gelassenheit is very old and not easily accomplished.”

For anyone who has experienced it, the transformative power of psychedelics is undeniable. Many modern people find themselves near permanently stuck in egoic control mode, their hand ever on the steering mechanism. We don’t easily let our guard down and we hardly can even imagine what that might feel like, until something shuts down that part of our mind-brain.

In a CBC interview with Bob McDonald, Michael Pollan explained why this happens and what exactly happens:

“The observed effect, if you do brain imaging of people who are tripping, you find some very interesting patterns of activity in the brain – specifically something called the default mode network, which is a very kind of important hub in the brain, linking parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older areas having to do with memory and emotion. This network is kind of a regulator of all brain activities. One neuroscientist called it, ‘The conductor of the neural symphony,’ and it’s deactivated by psychedelics, which is very interesting because the assumption going in was that they would see lots of strange activity everywhere in the brain because there’s such fireworks in the experience, but in fact, this particular network almost goes off line.

“Now what does this network responsible for? Well, in addition to being this transportation hub for signals in the brain, it is involved with self reflection. It’s where we go to ruminate or mind wander – thinking about the past or thinking about the future – therefore worrying takes place here. Our sense of self, if it can be said to have an address and real, resides in this particular brain network. So this is a very interesting clue to how psychedelics affect the brain and how they create the psychological experience, the experience in the mind, that is so transformative.

“When it goes off line, parts of the brain that don’t ordinarily communicate to one another, strike up conversation. And those connections may represent what people feel during the psychedelic experience as things like synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is when one sense gets cross wired with another. And so you suddenly smell musical notes or taste things that you see.

“It may produce insights. It may produce new metaphors – literally connecting the dots in new ways. Now that I’m being speculative – I’m going a little beyond what we’ve established – we know there are new connections, we don’t know what’s happening with them, or which of them endure. But the fact is, the brain is temporarily rewired. And that rewiring – whether the new connections actually produce the useful material or just shaking up the system – ‘shaking the snow globe,’ as one of the neuroscientists put it, is what’s therapeutic. It is a reboot of the brain.

“If you think about, you know, mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and anxiety, many of them involve these loops of thought that we can’t control and we get stuck on these stories we tell ourselves – that we can’t get through the next hour without a drink, or we’re worthless and unworthy of love. We get stuck in these stories. This temporarily dissolves those stories and gives us a chance to write new stories.”

Psychedelics give the average person the rare opportunity of full-blown negative capability, as our egoic boundaries become thinner or disappear altogether. When the chatter of the ego-mind ceases, the passengers on the boat can hear themselves and begin talking among themselves. The bundle theory of the mind suddenly becomes apparent. We might even come to the realization that the ego was never all that much in control in the first place, that consciousness is a much more limited phenomenon.